- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Supporters of a Maryland ballot initiative to expand gambling have touted it as a boon for education funding, but opponents say that claim is just a bluff.

Ballot Question 7 would legalize table games at the state’s casinos and allow a new gambling facility in Prince George’s County. Legislative analysts project it would generate an extra $713 million a year by 2019 — $199 million of which would go to the state’s Education Trust Fund.

But opponents and budget analysts say the trust fund does not actually supplement school spending. Instead, it frees up general funds that would have otherwise gone to education, meaning that it has zero net effect on overall education spending.

“It’s actually a little bit of a shell game,” said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery Democrat who opposes Question 7. “I think it’s unfortunate that it’s been used as the carrot on the end of the stick to get voters to support this.”

The Education Trust Fund was established in 2008 when voters approved slots. It has collected $210 million in revenue since the state’s first casino opened in 2010. According to state law, it gets nearly half of all slots revenue. If the referendum passes, the fund would also receive 20 percent of table games revenue.

Despite the additional revenue, the state kept its per pupil education funding level the same in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 before allowing a 1 percent increase in the current fiscal year.

Gambling critics including Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot contend lawmakers have shown no interest in using the fund to bolster education spending and are unlikely to do so in the future.

“Education funding has nothing to do with slot machines,” Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, said recently. “We would still have the education budget we have now.”

Many Question 7 supporters acknowledge that gambling has not directly increased education funding, but they argue that the extra revenue will improve the state’s economic climate enough to decrease the possibility of tax increases or cuts to programs, including education.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, called it disingenuous to suggest expanding gambling will do nothing for schools.

“This gives us the wherewithal to keep the commitments that we made a long time ago,” said Mr. Barve, who works as an accountant. “No matter which way you spin it, extra money is a good thing for the budget, and education is the biggest part of the budget.”

Despite urging that Question 7 will help schools, there has been some skepticism from educators.

Teachers’ unions in Prince George’s County and Baltimore have supported expansion. However, the Maryland State Education Association — which represents 70,000 state educators — declined to endorse the plan at its recent convention; less than the necessary 58 percent of its voting members lent their support.

Gambling opponents have also argued that money from the trust fund might be diverted to other purposes, as has been the case with the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

“It’s a holding tank for dollars, but not a lock box,” Ms. Mizeur said. “We’ve done a good job of paying [other funds] back, but there are no guarantees. Those dollars are not off limits in tough times.”

Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, said he thinks lawmakers have a strong track record of funding education and are unlikely to raid the fund.

“Maryland has done a pretty good job of making education funding a priority,” he said. “It hasn’t gone up as much as was scheduled prior to the recession, but the state has done comparatively well.”