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With all sides behaving badly, slots starting to look like a lousy idea

April 07, 2003|By TIM ROWLAND

When Gov. Bob Ehrlich's people were yet again redrawing their slot machine proposal recently, they called a 9 p.m. press conference and handed reporters a breakdown of gambling-revenue beneficiaries.

The sheet of paper indicated that education was to get 59 percent of the money and the racetrack owners were to get 29 percent, netting out expenses, which sounded like a pretty good deal for Maryland schools.

Being late, it was right on deadline for the papers and 11 o'clock news broadcasts, and the press might have run with the administration's numbers were it not for State House (and former Herald-Mail) reporter Steve Dennis, who suddenly got curious about the "netting out" phrase.

Pressed, the governor's staffers admitted that "netting out" meant that 28 percent of the profit was gong to the tracks off the top and schools were only getting 59 percent of the balance after more than a quarter of the money had already been skimmed off the top.

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This led one lobbyist wag to crack that "netting out the affairs that he'd had" he had been a pretty good husband.

But the governor's attempted sleight of hand is illustrative of what we're dealing with when large chunks of money are on the table.

The governor has tried to trick the public, gambling interests have serendipitously poured boatloads of cash into the Senate president's campaign warchest, educators are clawing for money like cats and Sen. John Hafer, R-Allegheny/Washington even grumbled on the Senate floor that his track man in Allegheny County was being put upon to front too much in fees - the unspoken implication being that education was getting too much.

All of which has served to land me squarely in the camp of freshman Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington, who has been strongly opposed to slots from day one.

Just 60 short days ago, I favored slots as a way to pay for sharply increased demands on our school systems. And personally, I never shared the outrage that some seemed to be feeling over gambling at a racetrack. That is, afterall, what they do.

But the nagging question is this: If slot machines cause our elected officials and top state administrators - supposedly the cream and high-minded best of our society - to act so despicably, what hope can there possibly be that the casino-like institutions will have a positive effect on the rest of us?

When there's this much money involved, no one can be trusted. The proposed share of money that was to be going to our schools has dropped and dropped, to the point where it is now below 50 percent.

And what guarantee do we have that once slots are entrenched the track owners won't once again throw themselves on Annapolis complaining they can't possibly make ends meet unless their share of the take is raised (and education's lowered)? They will dump even more money into lawmakers campaign pockets. And if they do not get their way they will threaten to shut down operations and stop the flow of cash that the state will have by then become addicted to, leaving lawmakers with ostensibly little choice but to meet their demands.

And what of the lawmakers themselves? How long will it be before they lust to get their greedy little paws on the money to patch up poor spending decisions in the state budget?

In government, where we've seen raids on pension and highway funds, what makes us think the school fund would be any different? I'm sure there will be all manner of "assurances" that this will never happen, all of which can be broken.

It is nothing short of public blackmail that our state leaders are telling us that schools will rot if we do not roll over and accept slots. This is extra galling when one considers that the school funding crunch is largely due to crises that state government has itself created.

Just over a decade ago, the state budget stood at roughly $12 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $15.6 billion today. Yet this year's budget will be almost $24 billion, double what it was just 10 years ago.

Some items, such as medical costs, the state cannot control. But this week there was the news we've all been waiting for, that the state has designed new driver's licenses - at a cost of $40 million. The new license is better because it has a picture of crab on it - emblematic, I suppose, of the way most people feel when they have to venture into the MVA offices.

When you could have run two states of Maryland in 1992 for what it costs to run one state of Maryland today, there is no getting around the fact that money is not being spent wisely (leads me to wonder how those state-aided, metropolitan-area equestrian centers are working out).

In this light, slots seem less necessary than smarts.

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