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September 29, 2008

Take a Chance

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Well, it seems as though every expert, bush league moralist, and elected opinion maker is busy sharing their opinions on the question of slot machines in Maryland. In fact, the rush to find a microphone is so overwhelming that it sounds like a stampede.


Leading the way is one of the most curious collections of elected officials ever assembled. The anti-slots poster boy is Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a progressive Democrat and former state delegate from Takoma Park. Comptroller Franchot once proposed a slots gaming bill in the House of Delegates, but that was so long ago most voters have already forgotten.


For now, suffice it to say that he leads a coalition of state politicians and organizations fighting the scourge of expanded gaming.


Recently, the ranks of his group grew by two, as U.S. 6th District Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and State Sen. Alex Mooney (Dist. 3) joined the no slots team. To be fair, both have opposed gaming expansions before, with Senator Mooney speaking out against the repeated attempts by former GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich to pass a slots bill and Representative Bartlett generally opposing any form of "sin tax".


Both of these gents are traditional fiscal and social conservatives. They don't just oppose sin taxes, though; they are opposed to any form of tax increase. Congressman Bartlett's name is prominent on the Americans for Tax Reform website as a signer of the federal No Tax pledge, and Senator Mooney has signed the state version of the same pledge.


Here's the text of the Pledge:

I,____________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the State of _________ and to the American People that I will:

ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and

TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.


The state pledge form is simpler; it merely requires the brave legislator to promise to never vote to raise any and all form of tax during their term in office. I've written before about these pledges and promises. Regardless of the merit of a pledge, I hate them, refuse to sign them, and hold a good measure of contempt for anyone who does sign them.


A signature on a promise to not raise taxes might be fodder for a single issue voter, but it makes for a lousy legislator. Sign enough of these pledges, and a voter might have a legitimate reason to wonder why they'd bother voting for the signer. If you predetermine your position on every issue, regardless of the importance and complexity, why do we need to elect you as a legislator? A trained monkey could go down there and just push the button corresponding to whatever pledge or promise you've already signed!


Maybe that's the reason our representative legislatures at the federal and state level are so ineffective, huh? Many legislators have found their outlet, which is mustering the guts to sign a piece to paper to absolve them from actually having to THINK about how they would govern.


So, Alex Mooney and Roscoe Bartlett officially join the ranks of those opposing slot machines. Inherent in their position is the typical rhetorical bluster, mixed with a little bit of old time religion.


They're concerned for the poor; at least that's what the press release says anyway. To hear our fearless anti-slots crusaders tell it, busloads of gray-haired grannies, or urban one-pull-get-rich-quick hopefuls, are presumably being drawn by a power they cannot control to Dover, Atlantic City, and Charles Town.


Roscoe and Alex are intent to save them by telling people not to support the referendum question, this in spite of the fact that the arguments being used are not supported by independent factual analysis.


Argument #1: Only poor people play slots.


Those who make this argument have never been in a slots facility. Sure, there are people who play slots who can ill afford to spend their money on gaming. But there are an equal number of people who travel to these facilities who choose to gamble as a form of entertainment, even if Roscoe doesn't believe it!


Argument #2: Bringing slots to Maryland will create problem gamblers.


If you lived in a location that might actually be impacted by a local facility, this could be a partially valid argument. In the 6th Congressional District and 3rd State Senatorial District, this just isn't a legitimate position. If either Representative Bartlett or Senator Mooney were truly so concerned about the impact of slots on gambling addicts in Frederick County, where have they been in regards to the gambling addicts being created at Charles Town? When has either been involved in increasing funding for addictions treatment? Oh, I forgot. They signed that darned pledge thing, didn't they?


Argument #3: The slots revenue will be dumped into the state general fund budget.


When the legislature approved the slots referendum, a second bill was passed to lay out specifically how the money raised by slots, if passed, would be spent – right down to the percentage returned to the license holders, the racing purse enhancements, local infrastructure impacts, and even gambling addiction treatment. Right next to these expenditures is the amount set aside for the Education Trust Fund, a newly established legal budget entity to use slots revenue to offset previously allocated tax dollars for education spending.


Argument #4: Employing the old "just because Johnny jumps off the garage doesn't make it right" defense.


Both Representative Bartlett and Senator Mooney have said that we shouldn't push for slots simply because other states have them.


Who has made that a singular argument? No one would argue that we aren't watching what surrounding states are doing with the proceeds from slots. Roads paved, schools built, facilities improved, and health clinics opened are certainly compelling reasons to consider gaming expansion, particularly when federal and state legislators are ineffective at the art of bacon-bringing. I say that Johnny's roof-jumping (WV's use of slots money) has made Johnny (WV taxpayers) very happy. Maybe it's time to do a little roof-jumping over here!


It really doesn't matter what a legislator's moral opinion on this (or any other) question is. Certainly, morals, experience, education, and attitude inform how a particular legislator votes. This is clearly true with Congressman Bartlett and Senator Mooney.


Senator Mooney had his chance to express himself, and he did, by opposing slots every time the question came to the floor of the State Senate. Representative Bartlett has consistently called on his Seventh Day Adventist faith in opposing expanding legal gaming. I can respect that.


It's no longer up to either Roscoe or Alex to define this debate, though. It's now up to each and every registered voter in Maryland to decide the question.


So, when you consider your own position, also consider this: Do you have programs or services, funded through the state budget, that are important to you? Do you have a child with special needs, or kids in public school or community college? Do you depend on a library for entertainment, or enjoy state park facilities for recreation?


If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then consider that slots represent somewhere between $400M and $600M in potential revenue that will not have to come through an increase in taxes. It would free up a similar amount of money previously used for K-12 education, and may represent our best hope for expanding access to affordable healthcare, senior prescription drug assistance, and other critical programs.


You can't bet on your local legislators voting to increase funds for these kinds of things, but you can surely take a chance on increasing revenue on your own, without their "help."


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