ANNAPOLIS – Marylanders, concerned about the state’s lagging budget, are throwing their support behind the state’s new Republican governor and, to a lesser degree, his proposal to legalize slot machines, according to a statewide poll released Thursday.
Support for slot machines has remained at 46 percent since August, although opposition crept up 3 percent from 37 to 40 percent in the last five months, according to data from Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications, Inc.
Slots are a cornerstone of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s budget proposal. Revenue from the machines is predicted to close one-third of the state’s $1.2 billion budget gap.
“Most Maryland citizens . . . see slots as the best solution to a difficult problem,” said Carol Arscott, co-founder of Gonzales/Arscott research. “The public opinion hasn’t changed a great deal over the last six months. If one thing has changed, voters are even more keenly aware that the budget deficit is a problem.”
The budget deficit was the chief concern of Marylanders, with 46 percent naming it as their biggest worry. Education was named first by 12 percent, the economy was named by 10 percent and transportation problems were picked first by 6 percent.
The deficit was the top concern for only 23 percent of those polled in September, the survey showed.
The Gonzales/Arscott telephone poll was conducted from Jan. 16 through Monday among 807 registered Maryland voters. It carries a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
After one week in office, the poll shows Ehrlich riding a 62 percent approval rating. His predecessor Parris N. Glendening, however, was disliked by 63 percent of those surveyed — just 22 percent said they liked the former Democratic governor.
While public support for slot machines has remained steady, lawmakers are drawing lines.
“I would think that the public would have some opposition,” said House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore. “When you had a reasonable number of slot machines at venues . . . and the money is directed at public education, the (legislative) support is very strong.”
Rawlings favors slots but has questioned the number of machines Ehrlich will favor in his bill, due for release Thursday.
“I think Governor Ehrlich has moved away from that direction.”
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a powerful opponent of slot machines, has backed a sales tax increase he says would net $600 million for the state, $205 million more than Ehrlich wrote into his budget for slots.
“Even if you implement slots in the magnitude that we’re talking about, it doesn’t solve the budget” problem, Busch said. “You learn all along in life that there’s no such thing as a free ride, and you learn all along that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.”
At the unveiling of his capital budget proposal Thursday, Ehrlich said “tax and spend” politics got the state into the deficit it has now.
“This government’s got a credibility gap,” he said, pointing to a graph displaying the difference in state spending and income. “Some thought the bill would never come due.”
Delegate Norm Conway, D-Wicomico, whose district houses the Ocean Downs racetrack — not included in Ehrlich’s slots plan — and Ocean City, a popular family resort, suggested that a sunset clause be written into any tax hike.
“I think that setting parameters there is important to any tax increase we put in place,” he said. He also suggested that the question of legalizing slot machines should be put to voters.
The governor contends, however, that the public referendum was held Nov. 5 when he won a decisive victory in the general election.
Meanwhile Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, a longtime slots advocate was optimistic at Thursday’s Senate session.
“Once they see the slots proposal and they see how the machines are and they see what locations the slots are going to be located at and how the money’s going to be spent,” Miller said, “then the people in the Senate and the House and the governor will start speaking with one voice.” – 30 – CNS-1-23-03