The Reagan administration's proposal for more federal budget cuts next year has stirred a new debate here over an old issue: whether Maryland should continue to use an "instant" cash lottery to finance state programs.
This year the debate is more than a simple argument over economics or morality. It reflects a new conflict at the state level over how to protect victims of federal budget cuts, while trying at the same time to raise money for programs that are losing federal dollars. And it also highlights political maneuverings within the legislature during an election year.
The Maryland lottery is the third largest source of state revenue, behind sales and income taxes, bringing in roughly $200 million a year for state programs. While most legislators agree that daily and subscription lotteries should continue, they are divided over the merits of the "instant" lottery, a $30 million budget item that Gov. Harry Hughes approved last year to help ward off a state deficit.
Hughes has said he opposes using betting games to finance state programs and that the year-long series of instant lotteries he put into effect will likely be the last.
He and other lottery critics charge that the "instant" games encourage people--most of whom are poor and uneducated--to place bets with the unrealistic hope of winning a quick cash reward. These critics say it is unfair to lure the poor, who will be hardest hit by the federal cuts, to spend money to bolster the state treasury. Nearly a dozen legislators have joined forces behind bills to abolish all instant games.
But other legislators say the "instant" lottery is used primarily by middle-class individuals, and that the proceeds could help offset huge federal cuts in transportation programs.
One key supporter of the instant lottery is Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore City), a persistent Hughes critic who is sponsoring legislation that would earmark revenues from the game for the state's transportation trust fund. Under President Reagan's new tax laws, the fund will lose more than $40 million in corporate tax revenues used to finance construction of state roads and bridges.
By supporting the lottery, Weisengoff is challenging Hughes' proposal for an increase in the gasoline tax, a measure the governor says is needed to replenish the transporation trust fund.
"I don't want to be responsible for a gas tax in an election year," says Weisengoff, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which will vote on the instant lottery bills. "The idea that the lottery takes more from the poor is a bunch of subterfuge. What takes more from the poor than a gas tax? That is the most regressive tax around."
Although philosophically against lotteries, Hughes opposes the measures to abolish the instant lottery, saying that the executive branch and the lottery commission should have the option of using them if economic conditions warrant it.
"With the uncertainty created by Reaganomics, why carve off the possibility of those revenues for the state?" asked one administration official. "You should never shut the door."