A controversial slots vote marked the halfway point of the Maryland General Assembly’s 90 day session Feb. 25. The House of Delegates passed the bill allowing 9500 slot machines with 71 votes — the minimum needed under the Maryland Constitution. The Senate passed a different bill the previous week.
It is not clear whether the competing bills will be reconciled in conference committee or whether the effort will die, with lawmakers unwilling to budge from their positions on already tight votes and widely different bills. The senate version called for 15,500 machines. House speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has said he won’t send the bill to conference committee.
Proponents of the measure say that slots will provide needed revenue to address Maryland’s structural budget deficit and especially to pay for school construction, and that the Maryland slot machines are aimed at people who are currently traveling to neighboring states to gamble. Opponents say that slot machines tax the poorest and least educated segment of society and will create a need for more law enforcement and social services
Slots have been a persistent issue during Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s (R) first term, and several of Potomac’s District 15 and District 16 representatives said they believed that if slots do not win out this session, they will likely resurface in upcoming years.
Slots made it to the house and senate floors relatively early in the session for a major measure — in part due to a strong lobby and their prominence on the governor’s agenda — lawmakers said.
With the session building steam, Potomac’s representatives talk about their views on the most hotly debated measure so far.
Garagiola (D): Yes
"It’s not something I’ve been pushing or making a policy thing. There’s a lot of ways we can fund government. I voted for a number of those ways. You know, closing corporate loop holes. We had legislation last year to raise temporary increases in corporate tax to fund higher education. Close HMO exemptions. A number of other things.
"Last year, when we had this debate in the senate, it was brought to my attention and I saw data on it: about $500 million dollars every year, Maryland dollars, are leaving the state and are going to West Virginia, Charlestown, and going to Delaware. … And those dollars are going to continue to go out. I’d prefer to keep them here if we can keep them. People are doing this. People are gambling."
Cryor (R): Yes
"There is really no political will to raise taxes at this time. Most people … got their property tax assessment notice, and I think the political will to raise taxes died with that assessment, and that’s where we are. … The second thing is if you really believe that gambling is being carried on the back of the poor, we should get rid of the lottery. The lottery is the one that’s actually impulsive, it’s in different places. People buy a six pack of beer and then buy a lottery ticket.
"This is the first step. This doesn’t mean that when we’re together this time next year that this actually will have occurred. It’s starting it out is what it is. In Montgomery County alone the bill that we passed yesterday … is about $25 million for Montgomery County, for our schools."
Dumais (D): No
"It was a difficult vote. Philosophically, do I think the best way to fund government services is to have slot machines? The answer is no, that’s not what I think is the right way to go. But Jean has accurately indicated that we’ve not been left with many other choices at this point in time. So the difficult vote last year that I’m sure I will hear much about eventually — [I] voted for a tax package that was suggested and proposed by the speaker of the house.
"I voted against the slot package, although I have to admit that of all the packages that I’ve seen, the package that came out of house ways and means was the best of all of the packages. It’s reasoned. It’s designed to address destination locations so that we get the people that are presumably going outside of Maryland to gamble. … My problem with slots in general is that I don’t think this is the end, and once slots are in Maryland, then the next year — maybe not next year, maybe it’s not for another five years — but eventually it’s going to be ‘we want destination casinos.’ And unfortunately the kind of lobbyists and the kind of money that goes into this kind of activity, it just creeps and it creeps and it creeps."
Feldman (D): No
"I went in sort of open. I wanted to hear … the specific proposals.
"It’s a question of scale quite frankly. You can say lotto has a place in all of this and all the rest, but we’re talking about a major, major up tick in gambling as a mechanism to fund fundamental, basic governmental functions [like] school construction.
"I started at some point during this debate to see where this was heading and it really troubled me looking 10 years down the road to see where this might be heading.
"If you truly believe there’s $700 or 800 million of extra, discretionary entertainment dollars around here that’s one thing. The economic arguments I’ve seen that are compelling -- we’re just recycling money. In other words, if you’re spending money at the track, it’s money you’re not spending at Hunter’s Inn next door or you’re not spending at the movie theater. We’re simply recycling a bunch of money. … Right off the bat you’re going to see our lotto go down 11 to 15 percent, you’re going to see some hits by the local restaurateurs in the neighborhoods and areas surrounding these venues and I’m convinced it’s a net loss."
Frosh (D): No
"The senate passed it two weeks ago. I’m against it so I wasn’t happy with the results in either chamber. I think any money that comes in the front door is going to go right out the back door in the form of increased payments for social services and law enforcement.
"I think its going to be tough to reconcile the house and senate bills. The house bill passed by one vote and I assume that if there are significant changes to it somebody could drop off. I find it hard to believe they’re going to pick a lot of people up. It’s on life support.
"This is one of these multiheaded monsters. Yes I see it coming back repeatedly. Its chances of passing next year [are lower because it’s an election year, but I foresee it coming back again in the future.]"
Bronrott (D): No
"I have strongly opposed bringing slots into Maryland because I think it is the wrong direction that our state should be going in as we focus on growing our economy in a responsible way and growing a quality of life that we all can be proud of, I believe that bringing slot machines into Maryland cheapens our quality of life and I believe that we can do better than expanding gambling in our state. I believe we should be spending our time here in Annapolis looking to fined ways to expand our investments in high tech and biotech and invigorating our economy without depending on primarily those who least can afford it spending their hard earned dollars or their savings in slot shacks that are guaranteed to win every time. The house always wins.
“Few if anybody ever beats the house. In effect it’s rigged for the majority to lose. And its money that’s lost fast. It’s not like a dollar or two scratch off lottery ticket.
“There could be a stalemate, and the bill may die. I hope so. … I think the forces for slots behind the scenes are very strong. There is a very strong lobbying force that will be persistent. I think that we need to persistent in our opposition to slots for the long term benefit of our state.”
Goldwater (D): No
Comment at start of session: “They’re supposedly the panacea. First of all, it’s poor public policy and secondly it’s an unstable source of revenue. If you look at the other states that have gambling, it’s up and down: some places it’s a source of revenue and other places it’s not. It’s not a way to run a state.”
Lee (D): No
"I voted against it. I'm strongly opposed to slots. I'm opposed to Maryland being in the business of gambling and using it as a revenue source. I just don't think it's a sound way to raise state revenues."
"There are also the negative aspects of gambling, such as problems with addiction and problems with crime and persons having to essentially use a lot of money. There's problems with breaking up families, with abuse.
"I don't think its good for the local neighborhood. Its just not a sound and prudent way to raise funds."
"Just because some other states around us are doing this doesn't mean we should be doing it too ... Other forms of gambling are going to be the next step.
"I hope that we can still not pass slots. The battle's not over yet."