Barry Rascovar: ‘Big Lie’ could spell big trouble for Maryland -- Gazette.Net







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Since World War II it’s been known as the “Big Lie.”

Now this nasty propaganda technique is being used, quite effectively, by Penn National Gaming to safeguard its regional casino in West Virginia and hoodwink Marylanders into voting down a gambling-expansion law.

The giant casino corporation has thrown some $30 million into a tsunami of media messages to convince already skeptical voters that Maryland officials are dishonest, manipulative and deceptive people who can’t be trusted.

The ads pound home that point repeatedly with the “Big Lie” — politicians won’t spend gambling revenue on education as promised; they deceived us before with the state lottery; they’re giving tax breaks to millionaire casino owners after raising taxes on the middle class.

Penn National’s cynical operatives are following the same tactic enunciated by Adolf Hitler, “The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” Or as H.L. Mencken put it, you can never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

In the case of Penn National’s advertising claims, there isn’t an iota of truth in some of them. Take the assertion that state officials scammed the public and broke their pledge to use lottery proceeds for education. That is a bald-faced lie.

As a young reporter, I covered passage of the state lottery law in the General Assembly and the popular vote on the 1972 lottery question.

Never did supporters claim lottery funds would be poured into education. That may have been true in New Hampshire, the first state to approve modern-day state lotteries, but never in Maryland.

The lottery law was approved by voters in a landslide — with no advertising or massive public debate. Never once did anyone claim this money would be dedicated to schools. It wasn’t even an issue. Lottery proceeds are deposited into the state’s general fund like most other tax receipts.

You’d never know any of this from Penn National’s ads. That’s the advantage of the “Big Lie.” In this case, it builds on a long-standing public myth that has no basis in fact.

What about that tax break for millionaire casino owners after Annapolis just socked it to middle-class taxpayers? Another gross distortion.

Yes, the bill lowers the tax rate on casino operators. Thank goodness, too. The state’s current 67 percent levy is far higher than the tax imposed on any other class of business or individual. Could you make ends meet if the state took 67 percent of your paycheck?

What about the recently imposed middle-class tax Penn National repeatedly mentions? Talk about twisting the facts. Unless the casino corporation’s definition of “middle class” includes the top 14 percent of Marylanders, this claim is bogus. Only upper-income families with net incomes exceeding $150,000 are affected.

Penn National asserts, persistently and obnoxiously, that there’s no guarantee new casino revenue will mean more education aid.

Not true. Each additional tax dollar from the casinos must be deposited in the Education Trust Fund. This money is locked into education spending.

While it won’t necessarily translate into more teachers and supplies for the classroom or more enrichment and arts programs, this new education revenue will make it far less likely that a future governor or legislature will cut education spending. Casino tax receipts are dedicated exclusively to education. They can’t be shifted around.

That makes casino taxes different from most other tax programs. This gambling revenue isn’t fungible like money placed in the general fund, which can be moved freely between programs to balance the state’s budget.

But that’s a long way from the original question: What happens to the tax revenue from expanded casino gambling? Answer: It stays in the Education Trust Fund, despite Penn National’s attempt to deceive the public.

Why is Penn National going to such extremes? Corporate greed. Its highly profitable Charles Town, W.Va., casino would be hurt badly by a luxury resort hotel-casino in Prince George’s County.

What voters should keep in mind is that Penn National is a Pennsylvania company. It doesn’t give a hoot about Maryland. It doesn’t care about creating new sources of job growth and development in the Free State. Penn National’s objective is to maximize stockholder profits — even if that means misleading voters and depriving Maryland of badly needed tax revenue.

If the referendum fails, the biggest losers would be citizens in Prince George’s County. A luxury casino there, given its location near Virginia, could become one of the most lucrative gambling sites on the East Coast.

Think what that might mean in terms of upscale economic development and jobs. It could be a game-changer for a county that has been regarded as the stepchild of the Washington region.

Much is at stake in this referendum. Sadly, perpetrators of the “Big Lie” may triumph. What a commentary that would be on the wisdom of voters and the extent corporations will go to get their way.

Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and communications consultant. He can be reached at