- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — Both sides in Maryland”s slots debate are going for voters” pocketbooks.

As the campaigns for and against allowing slot-machine gambling start up, the economy will be a theme for both sides.

A group of about 30 slots opponents gathered at an Annapolis church yesterday to begin their public campaign urging voters to reject a November referendum to allow up to 15,000 slots machines at five locations. A major talking point was to reject arguments that slots are needed to prevent tax increases.

“Slots won”t lower your taxes,” argued Hilary Spence, treasurer of Marylanders United to Stop Slots and a former Talbot County Council member.

Miss Spence called gambling tax revenue a “hidden tax” on the poor and outlined opponents” plans to defeat the referendum. The group bought a banner ad on the Web site of the Baltimore Sun and also promoted an online commercial against slots.

On the other side, supporters say the estimated $600 million a year that slots would raise is needed more than ever in a faltering economy.

Maryland”s top slots supporter — Gov. Martin O”Malley — said before the opponents” announcement yesterday that defeating slots means school construction and other important state programs would be put in danger.

“Hopefully, the opponents have a suggestion as to where else the people of Maryland, the state of Maryland will get these important dollars that are currently building schools and addressing public needs in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia,” the governor said, citing neighboring states where slot machines are in place.

A longtime slots opponent said economic downturns are typical when gambling is expanded. Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said Maryland also faced an economic pinch when the lottery was approved in the 1970s, and again in the early 1990s when keno lottery games were approved.

“Every time you get an economic downturn, this is always the answer you get from people in Annapolis, looking for easy money,” Mr. Meisner said.

Mr. Meisner argued that if slots are approved, full casinos could be proposed during the next downturn. He said money woes bring out those who promise gambling will fix economic ills.

“That’s why they always strike when they strike,” Mr. Meisner said of gambling companies.

Bishop John R. Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, who attended the announcement, said he is telling pastors to promote alternative solutions to a bad economy,

“Many states don’t have slots, and they can figure it out,” Bishop Schol said.

As the slots campaigns gared up yesterday, the question highlighted political tension between two of the state’s top officials — Mr. O’Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats.

Mr. Franchot is a vocal opponent of slots. He attended yesterday’s announcement and urged voters to reject economic claims from gambling supporters, though he didn’t name Mr. O’Malley.

“They will come in and say, ‘Vote for this or we’ll have to cut services,’ ” Mr. Franchot said. Later he added, “My friends, these are false choices.”

Mr. O’Malley, talking to reporters earlier in the day, groused about Mr. Franchot’s vocal opposition to slots.

“The comptroller has had the wonderful luxury of sitting back and doing nothing to help us restore fiscal responsibility while throwing stones in a hypocritical way” at the slots proposal, Mr. O’Malley said.

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