- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland gambling supporters say a little-known provision in the slots referendum this November could put the state at a disadvantage as surrounding states approve casino-style gaming.

“You are pretty well in a bind,” said Democrat and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, an ardent slots supporter. “I think the state should be free to handle any changes or future budget troubles.”

The provision - which would require a change to the state’s gambling law be approved by a “majority of qualified voters” - would make it nearly impossible to keep pace with other states in the region, Mr. Mandel said.

Maryland voters will decide in November whether to legalize up to 15,000 slot machines in five locations across the state.

Slots supporters have sold the plan as necessary for closing future budget shortfalls. But opponents say the plan will cost more to the state in terms of social ills and will be the first step toward operating full casinos in Maryland.

West Virginia began operating table games - including poker and blackjack - at two locations last fall, though voters opposed the measure at Charles Town, which is closest to Maryland.

Leading lawmakers in Pennsylvania, who in 2004 approved more than 60,000 slot machines, have now proposed legalizing casino gambling. However, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, opposes the idea.

Delaware lawmakers are facing budget troubles and considering expanding hours at the state’s three racetrack slots parlors or legalizing table games.

Supporters of Maryland’s slots referendum argue that residents already are spending money at slots parlors in neighboring states.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s labor secretary estimates that state residents spend about $400 million in out-of-state parlors each year, resulting in a loss of about $150 million in tax revenue annually.

Opponents say the proposal would target Maryland’s poorest residents, essentially balancing the state budget on their backs.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, hopes the Maryland slots plan will generate roughly $1.3 billion in revenue, with more than $650 million coming back to the state.

Mr. Mandel, 88, a former two-term governor and the House speaker when slots were banned in the early 1960s, points to a section in the legislation that reads: “The General Assembly may only authorize additional forms or expansion of commercial gaming if approval is granted through a referendum authorized by an act of the General Assembly in a general election by a majority of the qualified voters in the state.”

There are 3.1 million registered Maryland voters, according to the state board of elections. More than 50 percent would have to vote in favor of any measure to expand gambling, according to Mr. Mandel’s interpretation of the referendum.

Though Maryland usually has a good voter turnout - 57 percent of registered voters voted in the 2006 general election, 78 percent in the 2004 general election and 62 percent in the 2002 general election - Mr. Mandel still thinks the bar of approval would be set too high.

State lawmakers who approved the measure say they did not intend for the referendum to read that way.

“Where there’s an interpretation in doubt, I believe the court would turn to the legislative record,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Montgomery Democrat.

Mr. Madaleno worked as a state legislative analyst for six years before being elected to the General Assembly.

Legal counsel to the General Assembly interpreted the phrase to require only a majority of voters who vote in a given election.

“If ‘a majority of qualified voters in State’ is read literally, the result would be to require more votes than would likely be cast in the entire election,” wrote Bonnie Kirkland, assistant attorney general, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, Baltimore and Howard Democrat.

“Such a result would be absurd,” she wrote.

Other slots supporters, though, hesitate to look beyond the November referendum.

“At first length, [what] we have to deal with is the referendum itself,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat. “Without that, there’s going to be severe budget cuts and perhaps tax increases.”

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