You Mean Someone Makes A Profit Off Slots?
When Marylanders go to the polls in November, they will of course be electing a president and members of Congress, but they will also decide whether their state goes into the gaming business in a big new way. The referendum on opening state-sponsored slots casinos in five Maryland locations--including at the racetrack in Laurel--is heating up, and the battle right now is over whether Gov. Martin O'Malley's pro-slots administration is trying to stack the deck with crafty wording of the question that will be posed to voters on the ballot.
Here's the wording of the constitutional amendment Secretary of State John McDonough drafted--I should note that McDonough worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County for two decades before O'Malley appointed him to this post:
Authorizing video lottery terminals (slot machines) to fund education
Authorizes the state to issue up to five video lottery licenses for the purpose of raising revenue for education of children in public schools, prekindergarten through grade 12, public school construction and improvements, and construction of capital projects at community colleges and higher education institutions. No more than a total number of 15,000 video lottery terminals may be authorized in the State, and only one license may be issued for each specified location in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester, and Allegany Counties and Baltimore City. Any additional forms or expansion of commercial gaming in Maryland is prohibited, unless approved by a voter referendum.
What's missing from that synopsis? Well, how about the fact that the state's own analysis of the impact of slots gambling in Maryland determined that private casino operators would pocket a stunning $450 million in profits each year, while the state's schools would collect $660 million annually. If voters knew that, would they make the same decision as those who merely read the very limited statement that the ballot puts before them--a statement that says only that the "purpose" of slots is to raise money "for education of children"? How comfortable are Maryland voters with being party to a gambling scheme that from the get-go skims about 40 percent of the profits for the benefit of a handful of casino operators? Obviously not too comfortable, or else the state would have put the question to the people forthrightly.
McDonough argues that the wording is indeed straightforward, and that the ballot presents the issue without arguing for or against the change. But Aaron Meisner, head of one of the main anti-slots campaign in the state, calls the wording "outrageous" and says it shows what happens when you put a gambling lobbyist in the secretary of state's job.
Opponents of slots have filed a lawsuit to try to stop the ballot wording from appearing as it does above. But the lawsuit isn't likely to go anywhere. The state elections board says it is powerless to change the wording of the ballot question, and the anti-slots movement isn't even united in opposition to the wording--at least one of the main opposition groups says it will focus on providing voters with more complete information rather than fighting the ballot wording in the courts.
But voters should take this chapter of the slots fight as evidence of the state government's moral unease with its own sordid actions--if Maryland's governor and politicians were really sure that forcing the poor and gambling addicts to cover the state's budget gap was the right thing to do, rather than turning to all taxpayers to share the burden equally, then they'd have presented voters with an honest accounting of what they're really voting for this fall.
By Marc Fisher |
September 5, 2008; 8:45 AM ET
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