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Slots: a rich, but temporary solution to budget angst

March 25, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

I pretty much trust gamblers to behave themselves. I can't say I feel the same about governments responsible for legalizing gambling.

I know, we all worry about the poor gambler; gambling leads to heroin use and high treason, there's no question about it. Wives and children starve while some schlub doubles down on an eight-three.

And to be sure, some of those stories are real. Gambling is just as capable of ruining a fellow as any other addiction. But the great majority of gamblers are not betting the rent check.

But it's hard to be certain that lawmakers have the same willpower.

When an FBI informant was enjoying a rich dinner in a Baltimore restaurant with former state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Bromwell, the tape picked up this gem from the senator as he discussed an off-track betting license.

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"The guy I just told to (expletives). I said, look, I'm your (expletive) whore in Maryland, in the Senate side, and you turn around and you (expletive) me like this, (expletives) you. I'm going to see him tomorrow night. He's going to be licking my (expletive) boots."

Gosh. Bet the waiter was praying the steak was done to dude's liking.

The transcript, excerpted in The Baltimore Sun this week, shows what is possible in politics when there is big money on the table. And gambling, of course, is big money. Big, big money.

Whether you support slots in Maryland or not, you have to shudder at what might take place behind closed doors between now and the bill's eventual passage. And no doubt it will be passed.

Marylanders have already been prepped for it. We've been well-warned about next year's impending budget doom with a projected $1.5 billion deficit. So we'll be told there really is no choice.

There have been choices over the years, and they haven't all been good ones. Fifteen years ago, the state budget was $13 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $18.5 billion today. But the state budget this year is $30 billion, and they're still a billion and a half short.

You can't blame all that extra spending on the Thornton Commission.

I don't have anything against slots, but I do have something against letting lawmakers off the hook for sloppy spending. Slots can give them a quick fix, but unless habits change, I'm sure we will be in this same pickle a decade hence.

Suppose we had passed slots when former Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed it in 2002. They'd be humming right now, and a goodly share would be flowing into the state treasury.

Now do you suppose that:

1. This money would have been husbanded wisely and we would have no deficit to worry about next year, or ...

2. They would have found ways to spend it up on shiny new trinkets with no thought of the future, and we would still be in the same boat, facing the same deficit that we do today?

If you picked No. 1, stop by my office. I have a few leftover shares of pets.com you may be interested in buying.

Money and lawmakers are a dangerous mix. It just makes them want more. They may spend it on good things, they may spend it on bad things, but they'll spend it, there's no gainsaying that. They're like you and me that way.

I just wish they'd be honest about it. That we need slots because over the years they have been irresponsible with the state budget, and now we need an emergency patch.

Instead, we'll get a raft of specious logic, including what will likely be their fave: "We have to either legalize slots or raise your taxes."

Like this is all our fault. We either have to bow to slots or take the punishment that we justly have coming.

Too many people want to oversimplify government budgets. Much of the spending is mandated or locked in, and the choices lawmakers are free to make aren't as great as some may suspect. And in the grand scheme of things, incidents of outright "waste" are overblown.

Out-and-out shams such as bridges to nowhere or state-funded equestrian centers for the enjoyment of the wealthy are comparatively rare and represent a fraction of the total budget.

Where lawmakers fail us, I believe, is in taking budgets on a year-by-year basis with little attention to discipline or how an expenditure today will affect the ledger a decade down the road. That's what makes me cringe when I see Washington County contemplating 34 new positions. They may be useful (some are doubtless essential) and we might be able to afford them today, but how will they pinch the budget in five years if times aren't so good?

Contrary to popular thought, smart policy would raise taxes in good times and stash the money away. Then when the cycle turns downward, taxes can be cut to revive the economy and reserves called upon to maintain services.

It's a philosophy that has made the rounds in no government that I am aware of. Instead, it's, "How much money do we have to spend this year and how do we spend it?"

If lawmakers want to have slots, fine, let them have slots. If nothing else, it will be a nice little diversion for old ladies in tennis shoes. But please, under no circumstances, assume that slots will be a financial cure-all for the state for many years to come.

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