Perez, Simmons square off in heated debate over slots
A slots opponent likened them to "science fiction" and "crack cocaine" that would destroy the fabric of Maryland communities, while a supporter called them the best available solution to the state's financial crisis during a spirited forum on the Nov. 4 slots referendum Wednesday night in Chevy Chase.
State Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons found a little common ground, but argued forcefully about the social impact of slots and the role of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in the process before a crowd of about 100 at the Woman's Club of Chevy Chase.
Perez told the audience that while he understood concerns about slots, 15,000 of which would be placed in four Maryland counties and Baltimore city if the referendum passes, he wanted their benefits to be understood and their detriments not to be exaggerated.
A 2007 analysis from the General Assembly showed that slots would generate $660 million for the education fund in the 2013 fiscal year. In the same year, $95 million would go to enhancing racetrack purses and $34 million would go to "racetrack renewal."
"I do not believe either side has a monopoly on the moral high ground here," Perez told the audience. Later, he said he had "difficulty splitting the moral atom" with residents of Leisure World, a senior citizen community in Montgomery County, who traveled to West Virginia to gamble.
The slots program was part of a "three-legged stool" of policy prescriptions that also included cuts in state services and a more progressive tax policy, said Perez, a former Montgomery County councilman.
But Simmons called slots "a morally bankrupt way to fund education" and "a gambling gimmick that disproportionately targets the poor." He said slots would inevitably lead to myriad costly social ills, from white-collar crime to gambling addiction, and cited Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack H. Obama's stated concerns on the growth of legalized gambling in 2003.
He also called out O'Malley, arguing that he was against slots when he served as the mayor of Baltimore because of their social detriments, but had now changed sides.
"He has changed his position on slot machines without changing his reasons for opposing them," said Simmons (D-Dist.17) of Rockville.
The Chevy Chase debate was one of several revolving around the slots referendum. Also Wednesday night was an anti-slots rally at the Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department, in which Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and June Dillard, Prince George's NAACP chapter president, railed against the evils of slot machines.
"Annapolis doesn't want us to know the truth about the addicts they will create," said James Proctor III, a Brandywine community activist and president of the Fort Washington Democratic Club.
The Perez-Simmons debate was sponsored by the Woman's Suburban Democratic Club of Montgomery County.
Simmons compared slots lobbyists to tobacco "factotums" who lied about the health effects of cigarettes before Congress.
Addressing alternatives to slots, Simmons told the audience about his proposal to repeal 1998 state tax cuts to add over $600 million each year to the state's coffers. He questioned why it failed to garner support from O'Malley and other state officials.
Perez gave Simmons credit for coming with an alternative idea and praised the "ideological diversity within the Democratic Party," but said the tax cut repeal would not work.
Answering a challenge from Perez about why no delegate against slots had introduced legislation to eliminate the state lottery, Simmons said he would introduce such a bill, but added that he would not count on Perez to support it.
Earlier in the day, the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court ruled that the Nov. 4 ballot language must be changed so the word "primary" is inserted to reflect that the main purpose of the proposal is to fund education.
Perez said the change was sufficient to clarify the ballot language. But Simmons said it did not do nearly enough to identify other beneficiaries from new slots like the "moribund" horse-racing industry. He said out of 2.6 million Maryland jobs, only 9,000 were horse racing jobs.
Simmons alleged that O'Malley would pressure county governments to override their own zoning laws about where slots could be placed. Perez scoffed at the suggestion, arguing that O'Malley would be wasting his time trying to intimidate heavily Republican areas.
"I don't think he's got a lot of stroke with those folk," Perez said, to a sprinkling of applause.
Bethesda resident Milagros McGuire said she came into the debate undecided, but that Perez convinced her to be in favor of slots.
"It's going to be in the places where people want it," she said.
Staff Writer Megan McKeever contributed to this report.