By Raymund Lee Flandez
BALTIMORE – Maryland’s projected $1.3 billion deficit has some politicians bringing up the slot-machine solution, again.
One taxpayer activist, with the support of a tax education group, says if slots are the cure, then auctioning off licenses for them is the best prescription.
Selling licenses to operate slot machines to the highest bidder could bring in more than $1.5 billion, said Jeff C. Hooke, managing director of consulting firm Hooke Associates, in a news conference Friday.
He founded Project $1.5 Billion Recovery to call attention to lobbying that probably will mean legalization of slots.
Hooke said he wants to make sure people stop legislators from giving away a potential billion-dollar haul to “wealthy corporations and political insiders.”
“As a citizen in this state, I can’t stand by while people are getting ripped off for $1.5 billion,” said Hooke, who previously led a campaign to cut the legal fee for Peter Angelos, who represented the state in its tobacco lawsuit against cigarette makers. Angelos claimed $1.1 billion from Maryland’s share of the settlement, which the state protested. He eventually settled for $150 million. Slot machine legislation has been proposed in recent years, but the issue has failed to get out of General Assembly committees assigned to review it. That could change, Hooke said, as the state’s budget woes increase. And his idea may be a very timely one. If approved, Maryland would be the first state to auction slot-machine licenses, Hooke said. Certainly, the discussion could spill to the gubernatorial race, in which the issue of legalizing slot machines has been hotly debated. U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, supports slot machines at Maryland’s racetracks. They would bring $380 million in revenues for the state in fiscal 2004, he said. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, however, is opposed to the idea. She said she doesn’t want crime or gambling addition to rise. The Maryland Tax Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides tax education, supports Hooke’s case, saying licenses are a value that the state can use. “We are not in favor of legalizing slots,” said MTEF founder William Skinner. “If they’re going to do it anyway, our position is to get the most out of in terms that we can.” Although Skinner acknowledged slot-machine gambling could bring more social ills, Maryland, if slots become a reality, should not give licenses away in what he called “private auctions.” Cities like Chicago and Detroit, Hooke said, have sold similar individual licenses for more than $615 million. Auction proceeds from four of these licenses could raise $1.5 billion and “wipe out” the budget deficit – all for the benefit of taxpayers, he said. All Hooke and his supporters want is for voters and legislators to consider auctioning licenses “if, and when, slots are approved by the state.” While the prospects of such legislation passing are uncertain, the issue has the backing of one of the state’s most powerful politicians. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has vowed to push through a bill in the next General Assembly session to legalize the machines. A win by Ehrlich could move slots even closer to approval, Hooke said.
“We’re mobilizing,” he said, “against the probability of a billion-dollar giveaway.”