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Study: Marylanders vote 'with their feet' on slots

August 17, 2007

Marylanders who want to play slot machines haven't been waiting for the General Assembly to legalize them, according to a new state report.

Those residents are going to Delaware and West Virginia, where their play last year accounted for $150 million in tax revenue for those two states - or about 10 percent of Maryland's projected budget deficit.

It's time for state officials, particularly House Speaker Michael Busch, to get off the dime and legalize slots. As the Pennsylvania experience shows, even if passed tomorrow, slots money would come into state coffers for at least a year

The report was done for Gov. Martin O'Malley by Thomas Perez, Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

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Perez, whose agency oversees horse racing, told The Associated Press that "the slots horse is already out of the barn in Maryland."

Thousands of state residents are already "voting with their feet" and playing slots in those other states, Perez said. In the meantime, Maryland horse racing struggles to compete with other states where slots revenues raise purses.

Perez's report cites a 1999 University of Maryland study which said that horse racing's annual economic impact on the state is $600 million and accounts for 9,000 full-time jobs.

(A more recent study, released in 2005 by Magna Entertainment, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, estimated horse racing's annual impact on the state's economy at $1 billion.)

Perez's report also said that horse racing helps preserve 685,000 acres of land worth $4 billion. Without horse racing, those farms could be lost to sprawl development, he said.

The key opponent of slots for the past five years has been House Speaker Busch, who has expressed concern about the number of machines that would allowed, where they would be placed and the licensing agreements with slot operators.

"I don't think anyone wants to see any unjust enrichment. You've got to go through a thoughtful process with this," Busch said.

Here are our thoughts: Maryland needs more revenue and its citizens are already playing slot machines in other states. Not legalizing them here doesn't mean Marylanders won't play, but it does mean the state won't get any share of the revenue.

In 2003, Busch told The Washington Post that his caution on the issue was prompted in part by his own father's addictive gambling.

At the time, he said there should be a year-long study of the issue. Four years later, action on this issue is long overdue.

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