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Slots And The Politics Of Desperation

Funny thing about politicians and slots: The very same politicians who are such big boosters of slot machine gambling while they are in office suddenly develop a sense of moral clarity when they're not stuck with the challenge of balancing a budget.

Take former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, for example. But let's not be partisan about it: The exact same observation can be made about his Democratic successor, Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Ehrlich was Mr. Slots the whole time he ran the show in Annapolis. For years, he argued that the only way to prevent tax increases was to save the state's weakening horse industry and legalize slots. Now, Ehrlich is going on his radio show in Baltimore to denounce next month's ballot referendum on slots as "bad policy." (Today's column offers a more intimate view of slots from the perspective of a Charles County man who helped run the slots when they were legal there.)

"This is not even anywhere close to my bill," Ehrlich said on WBAL (1090 AM). "I want to see a future for horse racing in Maryland, but this is just a bad way to go about it." The state's horse racing advocates reacted with shock and anger to Ehrlich's apparent flip.

But Ehrlich's decision to rail against the plan proposed by the guy who knocked him out of office is hardly different from O'Malley's about-face on the very same issue.

After all, it was only a few years ago--when O'Malley was running against Ehrlich to be governor, to be precise--that O'Malley denounced slots as a "morally bankrupt" way to raise money for schools. What the then-mayor of Baltimore ripped as a "gambling gimmick" is now, of course, the centerpiece of his plan to protect Maryland from deep budget cuts as the state adjusts to the declining economy.

What the two governors have in common is that once they got into office and were confronted with the power of the gambling and horse lobbies, as well as the strains of trying to construct a budget while holding down taxes and accounting for steeply rising commodity and labor costs, they turned to the manna of slots.

O'Malley is oddly distancing himself from this fall's slots campaign--he's still for slots, but he's not exactly the face man for the campaign. But his main spokesman on the issue, state Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who wrote the study that the O'Malley administration used to justify its position, joins me this week on Raw Fisher Radio (listen here), where he argues that "slots are not the perfect solution," but that if voters don't say Yes to slots, "we will cut aid to local governments, aid to education."

Perez's arguments are familiar: Marylanders already travel across state lines to bet on slots, so why not bring the money back from Delaware and West Virginia? "This is something that people like to do," Perez says. (They also like to gamble on pro sports, smoke marijuana and drive 90 mph--does this mean you want to legalize those activities too?)

As state Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Rockville) says on the show, it's important to remember that the money that slots would provide for schools is not money to increase resources for teachers, but would merely take the place of dollars now raised through fairer taxation. And the governor's surrogates never talk about the $100 million-plus that slots would raise to subsidize the horse industry, which Simmons points out generates just 0.2 percent of Maryland's economy.

If the state is so eager to tap into our collective desire to bet on sports, why not choose a sport that's actually popular? How about legalizing gambling on pro football rather than pretending that Americans under the age of 60 are miraculously going to become interested in horse racing?

But the politicians don't want to get into those issues because slots present an easy path to the generosity of the gambling and horse lobbies, which are providing the bulk of the $3.8 million that the pro-slots campaign has to spend in the final weeks of the campaign--nine times the money the anti side has raised.

There's more on that on Raw Fisher Radio and in today's column.

By Marc Fisher |  October 16, 2008; 8:18 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I get a kick out of hearing how without slots revenue they will have to cut aid to local government and education. Maybe they should repeal the recent massive raise for governors office employees if things are so tight.

Get this - they will never be satisfied no matter how much money they have.

Posted by: jan | October 16, 2008 10:47 AM

"They also like to gamble on pro sports, smoke marijuana and drive 90 mph--does this mean you want to legalize those activities too?"

Yes, yes, and yes (on certain roads at certain times).

Posted by: Paul | October 16, 2008 11:20 AM

So, Paul, which roads are we advocating gambling on the drivers smoking marijuana driving 90 mph?

Isn't that called "commuting" in DC?

Posted by: DC Voter | October 16, 2008 12:41 PM

I think there are some open stretches of interstates that could accomodate 90 mph in the pre-dawn hours, but I wouldn't bet on it happening any time so, though maybe that's just the reefer taking.

Posted by: Paul | October 16, 2008 3:14 PM

Legalize medicinal marijuana in Maryland and then let Annapolis tax the hell out of it. You'd close the FY09 budget deficit before UMCP starts Christmas break.

Posted by: athea | October 16, 2008 3:25 PM

Maryland needs to find an Indian tribe with some land it's not using and let them run the slots while taking a cut of the revenue, like Connecticut does. Then the moral bankruptcy isn't in the government's hands and the ICC still gets built without raising any taxpayers' taxes.

Posted by: hb123 | October 20, 2008 2:59 AM

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