She prefers bingo down at the American Legion, but Joanne Bond could be tempted to play the slots if they come to Laurel Park, the racetrack not far from her home in Savage.
She would be doing a bit of civic duty, she reasons, because under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to legalize the electronic gambling machines, the state would get a hefty chunk of the revenue. "And right now the state's deficit is really bad," she said. "We need to get that in line."
But sitting in a booth at the Tastee Diner in Laurel, sipping her coffee, Bond had another thought: If slots are approved, they will bring traffic and people who cannot afford to gamble. "You hope they don't bring the wrong people," she said, carefully measuring her words. "I don't know quite how to put it."
"Riffraff," said her husband, Frank Bond, sitting across from her.
As state legislators in Annapolis debate whether to legalize slots at Maryland's racetracks, a similar tussle is underway in the communities that surround them. In diners, at community meetings and on the boulevards that ring the tracks, residents are taking sides in conversations that are every bit as heated as those going on in Annapolis.
Advocates say more gambling will help capture money going to nearby states that have slots, such as Delaware and West Virginia. Ehrlich's plan will help balance the budget and revive the flagging horse racing industry, they say. But critics fear slot machines at the tracks will increase traffic and create a seedy underworld of addicted gamblers and crime.
"I can say from my experience that there is very much a split feeling," said Jeanne Mignon of Laurel, who ran for the House of Delegates last year. "Some are opposed on moral grounds. They don't like gambling. I'm not opposed because there is already gambling on the racetrack. And I tend to feel that adults make adult decisions. . . . But I can tell you, it's a very hot topic."
Last week, Ehrlich (R) unveiled his controversial proposal to legalize slots, which were banned from the state in 1968. The plan would allow 10,500 slot machines to be shared among four Maryland tracks. Pimlico in Baltimore, Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and Laurel Park would each get 3,000 slots. A track under construction in Cumberland would get 1,500.
The governor said his bill would generate significant revenue and help the state erase its $1.2 billion shortfall. The tracks would pay one-time licensing fees totaling $350 million to the state, which would also get 64 percent of the slots' annual profits. Ehrlich, who said the state's share would go to public education, predicted that by 2006 the slots would generate $1.3 billion a year, with the state taking in about $800 million of that.
Local communities, some of which already get "impact fees" from nearby racetracks, would divide 3 percent of the proceeds from slot machines placed in their communities. In the case of Laurel Park, revenue would be shared among adjacent Howard County, the City of Laurel and Anne Arundel County.
Sen. John A. Giannetti (D-Prince George's), who represents the area around Laurel Park, said the track, which has had structural problems, desperately needs the additional revenue -- as do the neighborhoods around it.
"In order to save thoroughbred racing in the state of Maryland, we must have healthy racetracks," he said. "If the racetrack is healthy, then the greater Laurel area will be healthy."
Ray Smallwood, chief of the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department, just down Route 198 from Laurel Park, said slots could help pay for emergency services. Impact fees from the racetrack have already helped pay for a $550,000 fire engine, $100,000 worth of rescue equipment and a $50,000 truck.
Laurel offers racing 145 days a year, but the facility is open virtually year-round for off-track betting. Slots would be available there year-round, producing a continuous stream of people, Smallwood said. But more people, he said, means more problems.
"When you put casinos in, you're going to have five times the amount of people," he said. "And when you have five times the amount of people, you're going to have five times the amount of [emergency] calls."
That's why Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) called Ehrlich's plan "ridiculous."
"I can't begin to imagine the added cost of police officers, fire protection, ambulances, roads we've got to repair and all the trash we'll have to pick up on the highways," he told The Washington Post last week.
In Annapolis, the General Assembly is sharply divided. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have said that Ehrlich's plan would not generate enough money to help the state out of its fiscal crisis.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) is campaigning against slots while Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) wants to impose a one-year moratorium on slot machine legislation.
At Laurel Park last week, Louis Cammarata of Ellicott City had some choice words for legislators who oppose slots. "I can't believe those people," he said, while studying a racing program.
Slots would mean larger racing purses, he said. Larger purses mean better horses, and better horses mean better races.
"I want slots," he said. "Put me down. Quote me. I want slots. C-A-M-M-A-R-A-T-A."
In 2001, Laurel Park had to close for about six weeks because of cracks in the glass of the grandstand overlooking the track. In recent years, revenue and attendance has dropped at all the state's tracks.
That has become abundantly clear to Julius Mazzetta of Silver Spring. "Look at all this space," he said, glancing around the mostly empty Laurel Park one recent afternoon shortly before the day's first race. "They need to improve it."
The state loses so much revenue to Delaware and West Virginia, said Helen Finnelle, manager of the Tastee Diner. "You see them going by the bus load," she said. "They don't go for the horses. They go for the slots."
She's done so herself. "Leave me with $30 or $40 in quarters, and that's a good time," she said.
If slots are approved, the Laurel area might be flooded with business, like it was before Interstate 95 came along in the 1970s and sucked all the business off Route 1.
But Finnelle's brisk business is Adele Haas's traffic headache.
"You cannot move on Route 198 in the evenings and on Saturday," said Haas, who lives in Maryland City about a half-mile from the track. "The traffic is just ridiculous. Half the time I want to stop these people and ask them where they're going because they are not from around here."