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February 20, 2003

Governor Ehrlich's Second Dilemma

Ronald W. Wolf

Governor Robert Ehrlich wants slots at Maryland's horse tracks to help fund education and balance the state budget. But there's a problem. Maryland may not want slots at all, regardless of where the money goes. And if slots return to Maryland, after a 40-year absence, it may be in a form other than what he has proposed.

Governor Ehrlich faces opposition from almost everybody on slots. Although it has remained quiet, the gambling industry has been critical of the first draft of the bill presented by the Ehrlich administration because the tax to the industry is too high, meaning their profits would be too low.

A group called, a coalition of businesses, associations, faith groups, and civic groups, has formed. Legislators of both parties, who might support slots later, are asking whether slots legislation ought to wait a year while details are ironed out. Minority legislators want to see opportunities for minorities to be owners of slots (and casinos, if it comes to that) and may oppose slots unless that happens.

On the other hand, Governor Ehrlich has support from legislators in both parties and, when it gets really painful with regard to the state budget, ambivalent legislators may fall in line for the good of the state. What seems strange here is that the Republican Party, although trying to be the party of the high moral ground, is the party most in love with slots and gambling.

Riverboat gambling, often on boats that don't go anywhere, has become common in the Republican heartland of the United States. The Democrats in Maryland are lukewarm to the idea of slots, although, at least, they're not hypocrites.

But if you're going to have slots, does it make sense to put slots at horse racing tracks or at some place far more convenient, particularly to bettors from other states?

That's one of the arguments pro-slots legislators make. They claim that people from Maryland have gone to West Virginia or Delaware long enough, taking valuable tax dollars from Maryland and giving it to those states, and it's time to get even.

Republican Senator Robert Kittleman of Howard County said: "Maybe we will be able to milk Virginia and Washington, D.C., like we've been milked," referring to the money spent by Maryland residents in West Virginia and Delaware. House Minority Leader Alfred Redmer said Northern Virginia and Washington would be a "great market." Both statements were reported in The Baltimore Sun.

Using the approach of Senator Kittleman and Delegate Redmer, it would seem to make sense to put slots, if not entire casinos, on I-68 in Allegheny County near the West Virginia line; on I-95 in Cecil County near the Delaware line; on I-83 in northern Baltimore County; in Emmitsburg just off Route 15; in Prince George’s County at the first exit off the Wilson Bridge (Rosecroft is about five miles from the Wilson Bridge); on the eastern shore as close as possible to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel; and on Route 301 just across the river from the Navy Weapons Test Center. (We might also want to see a casino in Arbutus next door to Governor Ehrlich’s parents.)

In this way we would be able to attract people who enjoy the gaming lifestyle (that’s a euphemism for let's drain tax dollars from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia) from nearby states. Some of the social burden that comes with gambling might be deflected to other states, too.

Following that scenario, would a casino arms race follow with Virginia and Pennsylvania?

Maybe slots and casinos won't lead to the social problems usually associated with gambling (see Mike Kuster's comments, The Tentacle, February 6th, also Al Duke, February 17th). Gambling, as Mike pointed out, is a regressive form of taxation, with lower income people living near casinos spending a disproportionate amount of their income on gambling. That, by itself, is an argument not to place slots at Pimlico, which is in a low-income section of Baltimore City. Of course, propose placing slots in Montgomery County, say in Chevy Chase or Potomac, and a great deal of toxic waste will hit the fan.

Agreement exists on the need to find money for education and the law requires the state to balance the budget. But slots will be a headache for Governor Ehrlich for reasons unrelated to the budget and schools. Until those issues are resolved, there will be no slots income for anything.

Before slots can be a magic panacea, Governor Ehrlich needs to change a lot of minds to avoid taking the blame for the problems associated with slots.

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