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Slots bill a top priority for area's state representatives

August 28, 2003

Washington County's state lawmakers this week said they'll closely monitor the debate over slot machines in Maryland and where they should be installed. They'd better do more than watch, because after securing funds for the University Systems of Maryland campus in downtown Hagerstown, preventing the damage slots could do to local charities is a major priority.

Given the state's fiscal problems, passage of some form of slot-machine legalization bill seems inevitable. But unlike Gov. Robert Ehrlich's bill, which would have put slots at the state's horse tracks, House Speaker Michael Busch is pushing for stand-alone slot parlors along major roadways.

Now consider that Interstate 70 and 81 cross in Washington County and that the county already has tip-jar gambling that supports a host of local charities and you have some dangerous possibilities.

They include: A local slot-machine parlor that would reduce the amount of tip-jar play without providing anything close to the same local share for fire/rescue companies and other charities. If slots are inevitable, we feel the system should be patterned on those of states like West Virginia and Delaware, where the machines are housed at the horse tracks.

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Not only does that arrangement improve the health of the horse-racing industry by providing bigger purses, it also avoids the fights certain to take place when slot parlors are proposed in communities that don't want them.

And even if most of Maryland's slots are located at the tracks, there's also a chance that someone will suggest putting them at off-track betting parlors.

Should government depend on gambling revenue to fund vital local services like fire/rescue and the Community Free Clinic? Of course not. But if the alternative is raising taxes, citizens will choose the gambling option almost every time.

We expect lawmakers to speak vigorously on these points and to be involved in the research and debate on this issue. Gov. Ehrlich's plan suffered because it had a made-up-on-the-run feel to it. If local lawmakers can show how another state has done slots successfully, it will save charities here from watching their funds disappear like a pile quarters dumped into a one-armed bandit.

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