A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that proponents of a plan to bring slot machine gambling to the nation's capital can begin collecting signatures to put the issue before District voters in November.
The ruling by Judge James E. Boasberg was a defeat for a coalition of religious and community activists who had filed suit to block the initiative, which calls for building an entertainment complex at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE containing as many as 3,500 video lottery terminals.
But the project's backers now face the daunting task of getting signatures from at least 17,500 registered D.C. voters by a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday, and the petition form will not be available until a meeting of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics scheduled for 2 p.m. tomorrow.
That means organizers will have a period of less than 123 hours, much of it falling over the July 4 holiday weekend, to meet their goal of gathering 40,000 to 50,000 signatures. They hope to collect that many names to guard against the possibility that some signatures will be found invalid during a review by the elections board.
Asked whether the deadline will be met, the initiative's general counsel, former D.C. Council member John Ray, said: "Well, I think so. We will just have to have everybody well organized, and we will have to have some luck with the weather."
As part of that effort, proponents plan to pay petition circulators about $6 a signature and hope to have about 200 people collecting the names, Ray said. They have hired two firms to recruit residents to distribute petitions, and they are trying to line up advisory neighborhood commissioners and other community activists in each of the city's eight wards to lead teams of petition handlers this weekend.
Elections board spokesman Bill O'Field said that although it is illegal to pay individuals for their signatures, there is nothing that prohibits signature gatherers from receiving compensation. The campaign of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) paid some petition circulators in his 2002 reelection bid, an effort that resulted in a scandal over forged signatures.
Those behind the gambling proposal also are planning an extensive public relations campaign, including radio and television ads beginning in the next day or two.
"I don't think it is doable," said Dorothy Brizill, one of the plaintiffs in the unsuccessful lawsuit, referring to the amount of time that gambling supporters have to obtain the necessary number of signatures.
Brizill, executive director of the nonprofit government watchdog group DCWatch, called the amount being offered for signatures "just outrageous."
"We're going to be telling people: 'Just don't sign,' " she said, adding, "When you pay people to get signatures, that is when you get it wrong."
With the payment of $6 a signature, the price tag for the petition drive could top $300,000, bringing the total amount spent so far on the initiative to well over half a million dollars.
The gaming project is being proposed by Ray, D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Newell said after yesterday's court hearing, "I am looking forward to the next stage and coordinating a project that will bring substantial benefits to the city."
According to marketing materials for the initiative, the slot machines would generate about $765 million a year in revenue. A fourth of that money, about $190 million, would be paid as a tax to D.C. government. The rest, about $575 million a year, would be kept by investors in the gambling complex and either taken as profits or used to operate the facility.
Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Regina James, another plaintiff in the lawsuit to block the petition drive, said the proposed project "is not true economic development." She contended that the gambling would exacerbate prostitution and other crime already troubling the neighborhood.
In issuing his ruling during the half-hour hearing, Judge Boasberg said he was allowing the elections board to certify the initiative, but not without requiring some language changes.
He ruled that the initiative summary printed on the petitions and on the Nov. 2 election ballot must specify that video lottery terminals, or VLTs, are "very similar to slot machines." He also ordered the removal of language saying the D.C. Council would receive a nonbinding recommendation to spend its share of the slots money "to improve public schools and to help senior citizens obtain prescription drugs."
Brizill had challenged the elections board's decision to include the nonbinding recommendation. "We believe that line is there to sell the initiative," she said. "It's the little sugar that's being offered to make the medicine go down."
She also had argued that the petitions should include the term "slot machines," instead of referring simply to "video lottery terminals," a phrase that she said "is not known to most people."
In a broader challenge to the initiative, Brizill had argued that the measure was illegal because it was "special-interest legislation" that would grant those in control of a specific piece of property an exclusive, 10-year license to operate slot machines in the District.
But Boasberg said that although that argument raised "interesting issues," it was not a basis for invalidating the initiative.
Brizill also had said the gambling proposal would impermissibly require the city to spend money to regulate the machines, which would be linked to a computer system operated by the D.C. Lottery. "I don't find that to be proven," the judge said in his ruling.