Friday, May 23, 2008

Slot machines are ‘a bad bet’ for state, group says

Slots proponent says anti-slots group got it wrong

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As the time nears for voters to yay or nay slots, a group of activists is fighting to keep the much-debated gambling machines out of the state.

Marylanders United to Stop Slots, made up of former and current elected officials and church and civic leaders, said Thursday that slot machines would hurt the state.

‘‘We believe strongly that it’s the wrong direction for Maryland,” said Scott Arceneaux, the group’s senior advisor. ‘‘It’s a bad bet for Maryland. It’s wrong to tie slot machine gambling to education.”

Marylanders United to Stop Slots began its statewide tour Thursday with news conferences in Easton and Ocean City. It plans to hold similar conferences in Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Cecil counties and Rocky Gap in Western Maryland, Arceneaux said.

In their criticism of slots, group members said legalized gambling would increase crime, traffic and gambling addiction.

Not so, said Frederick W. Puddester, former state budget secretary and chairman of For Maryland For Our Future, a pro-slots group.

‘‘It’s really about balancing the Maryland budget,” he said. ‘‘I think that, with this proposal, we won’t have to raise taxes or cut the education budget.”

If voters pass the slots referendum, the state would build 15,000 slot machines at five locations in Baltimore city, Laurel, Rocky Gap, Cecil County and the Eastern Shore, Puddester said.

Maryland residents spend as much as $400 million on slots in West Virginia and Delaware, according to a report written last year by Thomas E. Perez, secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The money was used to build roads and schools in those states, Puddester said.

‘‘If this is going to be debated in the media, and I have to come up with the analysis and the data, I think it’s incumbent upon the opponents to come up with their own analysis to support it,” he said. ‘‘There’s no slippery slope that we’ll start with slot machines and go to full-blown casinos.”

Lawmakers can raise taxes and cut programs to generate money for the state, said Ocean City Councilwoman Nancy L. Howard, a member of the anti-slots group.

‘‘The revenue is overestimated and the good it will do is overestimated,” she said. ‘‘This is a horrible message to send to children. It seems like now you can go gambling and don’t worry about budgeting your money or getting a good job.”

Perez’s report acknowledges that gambling can be addictive, but there’s no information to show slot machines increased gambling in West Virginia and Delaware.

‘‘While many factors contribute to rising and falling crime rates, it appears that the legalization of slot machines in jurisdictions close to Maryland have not led to a spike,” the report said.

If passed, slot machines would ‘‘take care of the state’s financial woes on the backs of people who can’t afford to do it,” said John W. Cole, president of the Caroline County Board of Commissioners.

‘‘I think it’s very poor public policy,” Cole said. ‘‘The cost of remedying the problems it creates probably soaks up the revenue it creates.”

Slots proponents ‘‘want to take currently illegal activity and make it legal to create revenue,” Arceneaux said.

‘‘Last I checked, we have roads and schools without slots,” he said. ‘‘Before you take something that’s illegal and make it legal, you got to look at all of your options.”