Influential black lawmakers who back a plan to legalize slot machines at four Maryland racetracks have commissioned a poll to convince wavering members of the black caucus that voters in their districts want them to vote yes on slots.
The survey in 13 majority-black legislative districts in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs was commissioned by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a strong backer of slot machine gambling, according to other black lawmakers. Rawlings declined to discuss the arrangements, but lawmakers said he told them the poll cost $65,000.
The results were presented to black caucus members Tuesday evening at a dinner in Annapolis arranged by Rawlings (D-Baltimore) and Senate budget committee Chairman Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's). Rawlings said the purpose of the poll is to educate black lawmakers about the views of their constituents on a matter that has been swallowed up in a sea of emotional rhetoric, much of it inspired by his own House speaker, Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a slots opponent.
"You got the speaker coming into black churches, ministers opposing slot machines and community meetings being organized in our districts," Rawlings said. "We wanted to make sure African American legislators knew what their community's views were on a controversial issue."
The survey of 4,000 registered voters showed that a majority of residents in Baltimore and Prince George's County support slots, despite the claims of opponents, who say casino-style gambling would ruin the mostly blue-collar and black neighborhoods around the tracks. It also showed that voters would be "more favorable toward their state delegate or senator" if they approved the initiative, according to a summary of the poll, conducted by the Washington polling firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates during the week of March 5.
Some black lawmakers who attended the dinner said it seemed more like a sales pitch for slots than an objective presentation. A representative of the polling firm distributed a summary of the poll results but did not give lawmakers copies of the survey questions, they said.
From the limited information provided, several lawmakers said the questions seemed designed to elicit support for slots rather than to measure the voters' true feelings. For example, said Del. Darryl A. Kelley (D-Prince George's), pollsters asked "if all the revenue were used to support education, would you support slots? And of course the majority of people said yes. But we all know the bill doesn't do that."
Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), Busch's ally in the fight against slots, said he believes "the purpose of the poll was to support a predetermined goal." If the questions had been posed differently, Brown said, "it's my belief that the results would differ."
Indeed, a statewide poll of more than 800 voters by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communication that was released yesterday found that 63 percent of those polled, and 74 percent of African Americans polled, would oppose a plan that gives "the racetracks . . . more than the state's educational fund."
While lawmakers debated the validity of Rawlings's poll, its source of funding was also murky. At the dinner, Rawlings said the Maryland Black Caucus Foundation Inc., a nonprofit educational organization formed by the caucus a few years ago, would help foot the bill. But the black caucus's president, Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's), said the foundation is unlikely to pay for the poll because the caucus "did not request it" and because it may not be appropriate.
Paul Sanford, a former lawyer with the Federal Election Commission attorney who now serves as director of FEC Watch, said paying for the poll could jeopardize the foundation's tax-exempt status.
"If this is education and they're trying to do it contemporaneous with a very visible and controversial period of legislative consideration, they're taking a risk," Sanford said. "This is such a hot issue right now and it's a close issue. Against that backdrop, it's kind of hard to say [the poll is purely for education purposes] with a completely straight face."
The poll comes at a critical moment in the fight for expanded gambling. Even as Rawlings convened the dinner Tuesday night, Currie's committee was voting to approve a slots bill that proposes to divvy up as much as $1.5 billion a year in gambling proceeds, with 46 percent going to public schools, 39 percent going to track owners and the remainder going to racing purses and local governments.
With just 18 days left in the legislative session, backers must push it through the Senate and the House, where it faces strong opposition from Busch and other leaders.
The black caucus is considered a key swing vote in the House, where slots backers believe they need the support of at least 25 of the caucus's 32 members.
Both sides have worked the caucus aggressively. Busch has attended town hall meetings, accusing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and other slots backers of wanting to allow gambling at tracks in black communities while prohibiting slots at tracks in white communities.
Meanwhile, slots supporters have offered black lawmakers a host of enticements, including guarantees that track owners will share the earnings with minority investors.