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Deal on slots is required to start revenues flowing

March 02, 2004

Whatever else you think about the proposal to legalize slot machines in Maryland, two things are true. The first is that it would be a new revenue source and without it the legislature would have to raise taxes or slash programs.

The second is that if the General Assembly doesn't solve this question in 2004, local governments will feel more pain, financially speaking, than they do right now.

Indications that a solution won't be easy to find came quickly last week, after the state senate voted to legalize slots at three of the state's horse tracks and three non-track locations. House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who scuttled last year's bill, said that he'd like to see all locations awarded on the basis of competitive bids.

Has it ever worked that way anywhere else? Beginning with Atlantic City, N.J., a down-at-the heels resort until the casino forces came calling, the pattern has been that gambling has been introduced in those areas where officials feel economic development is desperately needed.

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In Maryland, some residents of such areas will object, feeling that their lack of political clout is leading state officials to force them to take what other areas might find undesirable. Busch said he intends to quiz every county's delegation about what their constituents want.

That would lead to another year's delay, since assembly members aren't going to leave Annapolis in mid-session to hold public hearings on the issue.

The virtue of putting slot machines at existing horse tracks is that it would be a lot less likely to start a "not in my backyard" fight, given the possibility of new jobs and a share of revenues for local needs.

Here's our proposal for a compromise: Let the bill proceed with the three existing horse tracks getting slots and an off-season of study before awarding any of the other sites. The state would start to get some revenue, particularly if the assembly can tell the tracks that they're going to get only a reasonable cut, as opposed to last year's bill, which at one point gave them 28.6 percent. Cut that to 25 percent, then listen to their pleas for an increase down the road.

Slots aren't a done deal yet. But if Maryland is going to have them, it might as well be in places where gambling's already going on.

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