ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly finally passed a slots bill this week, but the discussion over legalized gambling is far from over.
The legislature passed a law early Monday that would let voters decide next November whether to legalize slot-machine gambling. Gambling observers and advocates say the ink on the bill was barely dry before the referendum campaign started to heat up.
“This is no exaggeration,” gaming lobbyist Bruce Bereano said Tuesday. “I’m sure the slots referendum campaign started yesterday.”
If the referendum is approved, as many as 15,000 slot machines could be placed at sites in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Both sides expect pro-slots forces to vastly outspend gambling opponents in the next year. But slots opponents, citing referendum victories last year in states as varied as Ohio, Rhode Island and Nebraska, believe their grassroots campaign will overcome their lack of resources.
“This is money against activism,” said Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland. “We have grassroots organization, and they have nothing but money for advertisements.
“The history in other states gives us every reason to be optimistic,” Meisner added.
But slots supporters point to recent polls that suggest support for slots in the state has never been higher. An October poll by Gonzales Research found almost six of every 10 Marylanders favor slots.
“Hopefully, there will be a groundswell of voter support” for slots at the polls, said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He said slots revenue would be a vital boost for the state’s struggling horse industry.
“We believe that the horse industry and the jobs it supports are good for the state of Maryland and good for the horse industry,” Hoffberger said.
But others remain unconvinced.
“I don’t think the general public will like the fact we’ll be giving over $100 million a year directly to the horse racing industry,” said Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore.
Both Meisner and Hoffberger said it is too early to know what strategies they might employ over the next year. But Joseph Weinert of Gambling Industry Observer said Marylanders would have to be shown a compelling reason for slots, such as lowered property taxes or improved schools, to approve them.
“It’s not that far to go across state line and gamble, and (Marylanders) seem content to do that,” Weinert said. Voters want to see if “this is going to better the quality of my life or life of my state in some way.”
Meisner believes that that could be a hard sell. He said support for slots should drop in communities where parlors would be located, and that voters in vote-rich Montgomery and Prince George’s counties historically have opposed slots.
“With slots, there’s something for everyone to hate,” he said. “We have a very robust economy. We don’t need to resort to these sorts of gimmicks” to fund essential programs.
Slots supporters have long argued slots are needed to keep gambling revenues from being spent in neighboring states. But while gambling operators in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania would seem to be natural opponents to gaming in Maryland, Weinert said they might be reluctant “to step into the fray” and work against the referendum here.
“That often times can be counterproductive,” Weinert said, citing a case when California voters approved a gambling referendum despite lobbying attempts from Las Vegas casinos.
Many lawmakers, such as House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, oppose slots but supported the referendum as a way to bring closure to an issue that has entangled Annapolis for much of this decade. Meisner expects some of those lawmakers to campaign with his group.
“Clearly, you could make the argument that you just can’t push this back to Annapolis year after year,” Meisner said. The referendum allows “us to reach some kind of conclusion on this. It will allow all of us to get back to the rest of our lives.”
But Bereano said at least one group might be sad come next November — the media, who Bereano expects soon will be awash in slots-related advertisement dollars.
“I wish I owned a TV station, radio station or newspaper” for the next year, he said. “I wouldn’t have to worry about a recession ever again.”
-30- CNS 11-20-07