If that's the only option, take slots to referendum

October 30, 2007

If it's the only way to legalize slot machines in Maryland, by all means, put the question on the ballot.

Taxpayers can only hope that House Speaker Michael Busch, who has successfully blocked slot legislation for years, will keep his word and let the voters decide on this issue.

The proposal to take the slots question to referendum was released Friday by Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose decision was an acknowledgement that the legislature probably wouldn't approve the idea on its own.

According to Associated Press reports, O'Malley would actually offer two bills - one dealing with the referendum itself and the other with details about where the machines would go and how many would be allowed at each location.


In one surprise, the proposal calls for slots at only two horse tracks, including Ocean Downs near Ocean City, Md., and Laurel Park, near Laurel, Md.

There's no mention of slots for the Pimlico track in Baltimore. Pimlico is home of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown for 3-year-olds.

As recently as September, The Baltimore Sun reported that Pimlico's owner, Magna Entertainment, still hoped to get slots legalized at the Baltimore track.

The Sun reported that Pimlico's net income fell last year to $1.36 million, compared to $3.5 million in 2005. Magna itself reported a net loss of $87.4 million last year.

Pimlico would benefit from a 6 percent share of the slot proceeds to be devoted to increasing racing purses.

Of more interest to most Marylanders would be the bill provisions that would give half the proceeds to education and 30 percent to the slots operators. (Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich's 2003 proposal offered the operators 24.8 percent.)

We support slot-machine legalization because it is, in effect, a voluntary tax. With slots, Maryland residents can choose to play or not. Those are options not available with the state income or property taxes.

As for the claims that slots would bring a host of evils, we haven't seen such happen in nearby Charles Town, W.Va.

Yes, there will need to be safeguards to prevent gambling addicts from feeding their rent or mortgage money into the machines, but getting such protections passed will be easier than winning approval for new taxes.

A referendum will give both sides a chance to engage in a public debate on the issue. Let the people have that discussion, then make the decision at the polls. Approve the referendum now.

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