Opponents Say Numbers Misleading
By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A new poll shows support for legalizing slot machines in Maryland is at its highest point in years, but some observers say passage of a slots bill at the upcoming special session is far from a foregone conclusion.
The poll from Gonzales Research and Marketing said 59 percent of Marylanders favor slots, the highest in the five years Gonzales has tracked the issue. That makes slots one of the more popular parts of Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to bridge a predicted $1.7 billion shortfall.
The General Assembly will convene next week to consider that plan, which also includes increases in the sales and corporate tax and income tax breaks for most people.
"No one likes to pay more taxes," said Mark Plotkin, a political commentator at WTOP radio. "That's why slots are so popular—because it's a matter of free will. If you lose, you deserve to lose."
Even in anti-slots strongholds like Montgomery County, voters have figured out that "one slots dollar is in lieu of one tax dollar," said Gazette newspapers columnist Blair Lee.
But opponents remain confident heading into next week's session, pointing out that slots have been debated in the legislature since the early days of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration. They also note that Republicans are refusing to vote for slots in the special session.
Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said he does not know if there are currently enough votes "in either house to pass a bill."
"I'm not sure that's ever been the case before," Meisner said.
Support in the latest survey topped a Gonzales poll from August 2003, when 57 percent favored slots during another budget deficit.
The new survey, of 839 registered voters in Maryland, found even more people supporting slots as a way to raise revenue and to recapture gambling profits going to other states, with support at 64 and 62 percent, respectively.
Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said that shows the public is aware "that money is available for lessening the deficit, but just going to other states."
But Meisner countered with an AARP poll from earlier this year of Maryland residents age 50 and older that found 59 percent supported slots, but that number dropped to 37 percent if the machines were located within five miles of the respondent's house.
"The problem is, we don't have the luxury of having gambling with no locations," Meisner said. "People find a way to support the general concept of gambling, but have a very hard time accepting" it near them.
While O'Malley estimates slots could eventually produce $550 million a year for the state, the plan he will present to the special session would only raise $27 million in the first year.
Slots have "been portrayed as the easy way out," said Allan Lichtman, an American University professor. The public thinks "we can cover a third of our deficit just with slots" but it "is not that easy."
Ron Walters, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he is not sure pro-slots forces have made enough inroads in heavily minority areas of the state, which have historically opposed slots.
If people liked slots so much, "I think we would have it by now," said Walters, who believes there is still a deep suspicion in the black community.
The Gonzales poll, which was taken Oct. 16-21, also found 84 percent of respondents believe a slots referendum should be on next November's ballot. Most recent ballot initiatives around the country have rejected slots.
Anti-slots legislators "can get away with a referendum," Lee said.
"They can say, 'I didn't vote for slots. I voted to let you vote for slots,'" he said.
But if a referendum is approved, Meisner said his group "won't allow legislators to take that cover" but will call on them to campaign against the measure.
"By approving the referendum, they're signing on to get involved on our side of the fight," Meisner said of anti-slot legislators. "And we're going to need all the help we can get."