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Gambling or sales tax? A choice, but not much of one

March 28, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

The last thing Ben Hart wants or needs at the moment is to become a poster boy for the anti-gambling movement, as it fights to keep slots out of Maryland.

But if the General Assembly is going to legalize casinos to pay for all its irresponsible spending, at least it should do so with its eyes wide open.

When the time comes to vote, every last lawmaker ought to have Hart's gutwrenching story lying on his or her desk in plain view. The former Washington County tourism director's life is all but ruined and when lawmakers push that green button to legalize slots, they need to know right up front, no questions asked, that they are voting to ruin plenty of other lives as well. They will be ruining these lives, because they couldn't competently manage our public finances.

Hart pleaded guilty this week to stealing more than $15,000 from the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and gambling it away. His statement to the court was that he had always had a smoldering gambling problem, but it erupted into flames when the gasoline of the Charles Town slot machines, a scant 45 minutes away, was poured on the embers.

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As a man who knows a thing or two about addictions, his story rings completely true. With addictions, strength and willpower can only carry you so far. I can pass a liquor store, but you put a case of Jack Daniels smack on my back porch, and I guarantee you I'm toast. Or more accurately, toasted.

A person hooked on betting can walk into a convenience store every day of the year and pop $10 on lottery tickets and survive. But the same person will not survive if there is a casino in the back yard, where $10 turns into $20, then $50, $100 or $1,000 at a sitting.

But for lawmakers, spending tax money seems to be something of an addiction as well, and slots represent something of a "get out of debtor's prison free" card that in a heartbeat will wipe away hundreds of millions of dollars in past indiscretions.

That's a tough offer to pass up. And it is equally tough to watch as all those potential tax dollars cross state lines into Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania. Tougher still is to tell your constituents that you raised their sales tax because you saw it as a preferable alternative to rampant gambling - and perhaps lose your job as a result.

Indeed, it is difficult to begrudge a lawmaker who would chose slots over a broad-based tax increase, especially for lawmakers whose home districts are not slated for casinos. Few of their local folks - even those prone to gambling - will be negatively affected by slots, whereas a sales tax hike will cost everyone.

The Maryland House of Delegates would shun slots, raise the sales tax a penny and lower property taxes, for a cost to the average Maryland resident of $20 a year. Or so the Democrats say, and who would ever doubt the word of a Democrat?

This would be easier to take if the House were proposing the penny sales tax increase instead of the avalanche of various and sundry fee hikes pushed by the Ehrlich Administration. But of course the House wants both.

So roughly speaking, here's the deal: The legislature will either hit everyone in the state hard, or just a few people in the state very, very hard. Destroy them, in fact.

How many will be destroyed by having a casino next door? Impossible to tell. A few hundred at the very least, I would guess. If you prefer not to believe in addiction, you can ease your conscience by saying these people brought it on themselves. But did these people's wives bring it on themselves? Or their husbands? Should kids have to suffer the awful price of gambling parents?

When you dig yourself a billion dollar hole, you have to do something fairly radical and that radicalness is going to hurt somebody. And you have to make choices that really are no choice at all.

Would it have made us feel better if Ben Hart had gambled in Maryland, so at least that way the tax revenue would have "stayed at home?" If we go the gambling route over the sales tax, will we be happy enough about saving $2.50 on the price of a lawnmower not to care that some lives are being ruined because of it?

Conversely, if gambling will adversely affect a few hundred, what of a sales tax that will adversely affect a few hundred thousand elderly and working poor? Remember, to someone on a fixed income, even $10 a month can be a big deal. So do you go that route instead of legalizing a game that a lot of people find amusing (and play within the bounds of reason) and does it indeed amount to a "voluntary tax?"

You can't really fault lawmakers for choosing one method over the other. Both sides have their arguments. But you can fault lawmakers for allowing Maryland's financial straits to deteriorate to the point that such lousy choices have to be made.

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