By ELI SEGALL
ANNAPOLIS (Oct. 29, 2008)—To one group, it's the "crack cocaine of gambling." To another, it's a fountain of cash for schools.
The item in question: slot machines.
The slots referendum, or Question 2 on Maryland's election ballot, has polarized activists and spawned a web of competing, contradictory "facts." Based on these arguments, the ballot item could either save Maryland from economic failure, or send cash-starved gambling addicts on crime sprees.
One thing's for certain, though: On Tuesday, voters will decide whether or not to authorize up to 15,000 slot machines throughout the state, potentially reversing a decades-long ban.
Residents are as divided as the interest groups working to pass or defeat the referendum. Asked how she feels about it, Lois "Lo" Hibbert, a Dunkirk resident, said, "Wonderful. Happy. Great."
"I'm tired of Maryland getting screwed while West Virginia and Delaware get all the apples," Hibbert said, referring to Maryland residents crossing state lines to gamble. "I'm definitely voting for it."
Preston Metcalf, however, couldn't disagree more. The Annapolis resident described slot machines as social poison.
"Back in the old days, people would spend their grocery money on gambling," he said.
According to a recent poll by The Washington Post, 62 percent of likely voters support the ballot item, while 36 percent are against it. State officials have projected that slots will pump at least $600 million a year into the state's coffers.
More than half the total revenues produced would be used for various education needs, from pre-K through higher education.
Slots revenue would also go toward their own operating costs, the horse-racing industry and the local governments where slots are based, among other places.
The ballot item, proposed last fall in the General Assembly's special session, is the latest of several attempts to bring slots back to Maryland, where they've been banned since 1968. The horse racing industry pushed to legalize slots in the mid-1990s, but Parris N. Glendening, the governor at the time, opposed it, said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Glendening's successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., tried to legalize slots four times during his administration, but opposes the current referendum.
Nevertheless, there are doubts as to whether tax revenue generated by slots will plug the state's budget deficit, projected to be $1 billion next fiscal year. The Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis & Research, a think tank, said in a recent report that the referendum's approval may also have "significant social costs" tied to addiction treatment and debt, among other things.
Should the ballot item fail, the state would lose out on new revenue at a time of worsening economic stress. On Oct. 15, state leaders hacked nearly $350 million from this year's budget, affecting everything from jails to hospitals. Officials described the cuts as painful but necessary, given the state's financial woes.
Among other problems, the nation's struggling economy has slashed Maryland's income and sales tax receipts, leaving the state with less money for salaries and operations.
Slots proponents often cite the battered economy as a reason for passing the referendum. According to For Maryland For Our Future, a slots advocacy group, failure to approve the ballot item would lead to further budget cuts and new taxes.
The referendum would also create "thousands of jobs," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, a trade group.
"We believe it will jump-start the Maryland economy," he said.
Opponents, however, say the referendum will cause more harm than good. They argue it will benefit casino and horse-racing interests, fuel gambling addiction, and unnecessarily rewrite parts of the state constitution, which approval on Question 2 would do.
Marylanders United to Stop Slots, for instance, released a flier calling slot machines "the crack cocaine of gambling," featuring the silhouette of a man smoking what appears to be a crack pipe.
Sandra Thorne, a waitress in Mechanicsville, also opposes the referendum on social grounds.
Thorne recalled seeing acquaintances gambling recently at St. Mary's Landing, a restaurant in southern Maryland that has bingo machines. The gamblers, however, were of meager financial means, and were "wasting money (they) didn't have," she said.
"I feel bad, but it's what they want to do," Thorne said. "I can't stop them."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.