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In governor's race, gambling key issue

April 23, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

As predicted, the issue of whether to fund a large portion of Maryland's budget by legalizing slot machines at the state's horse tracks is quickly becoming a top issue in the governor's race. Citizens need to pay close attention to who is saying what and demand some straight answers.

The issue became more urgent this month when the Maryland General Assembly agreed to boost education funding by raising cigarette taxes by 34 cents per pack. That will provide enough money to fund the recommendations of the Thornton Commission for two years.

After that, the General Assembly must decide whether to cut off the funding or find another revenue source. Given that the only two possibilities are legalizing slots or raising taxes, the pressure will be on to okay slots.

That's the position taken by Rep. Robert Ehrlich, the likely Republican nominee. Not only would Ehrlich legalize slots at the tracks, but would also approve their use at off-track betting parlors, known as OTBs.

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Ehrlich said communities with OTBs would be allowed to "opt out" if they don't want slots, but we worry about what would happen to Washington County's tip-jar revenues if, for example, slots were legal in Frederick County but not here.

For a look at what's at risk, consider that in February, nearly $600,000 in tip-jar revenues were distributed to 73 local non-profits, including $54,000 to the Community Free Clinic, which provides medical care to the poor. Just as important, $587,000 went to local fire and rescue companies. This community clearly has a lot to lose.

For her part, likely Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has said that she's opposed to slots, but as for solutions to the funding problem, she's been vague. She told The Associated Press only that Maryland is "progressive enough" to fund its needs in other ways.

Let's hear about those ways from Townsend and from Ehrlich about what guarantees he'd provide that slots wouldn't hurt tip-jar revenues here. As we said, this tough issues demands some straight answers.

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