- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland’s highest court turned back a legal challenge Monday to a referendum on slot machines.

The Court of Appeals issued a one-page order affirming a lower-court decision that resulted in a minor change to the ballot question.

An attorney for slots opponents argued that wording on the ballot dupes voters into authorizing slots under the guise of helping public schools. The lawsuit sought to have the ballot language rewritten or to have the referendum thrown out entirely.

While judges suggested several possible changes to the ballot language in questions from the bench, they ultimately made no changes.

As written by Maryland’s secretary of state and revised by a panel of three Circuit Court judges, the ballot question states voters would be authorizing slots “for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education.”

But a bill that’s tied to passage of the referendum establishes several other beneficiaries of slots revenue, including the racing industry, slots operators, the state lottery agency and women- and minority-owned businesses. Education would get about half the money.

The judges wrestled with the question of whether the ballot question should mention the companion bill, and if so, to what extent.

“Shouldn’t the voter know that there is contingent legislation?” asked Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. “Shouldn’t that be in the ballot question as well?”

Assistant Attorney General Austin C. Schlick argued that it should not, in part because the text of the proposed constitutional amendment does not mention any beneficiary of slots revenue other than education. He also said that a summary of the contingent legislation will be mailed to voters and that information about the bill is available on the State Board of Elections Web site.

In response, Judge Murphy posed the “ridiculous” scenario in which a voter reads the ballot question, then leaves the voting booth to call up the supplemental material on a laptop computer.

“We have to help someone who hasn’t read the supplemental material,” he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment would authorize as many as 15,000 slot machines at five locations around the state. A recent poll showed that likely Maryland voters supported the referendum by a thin margin, 49 percent to 43 percent.

State budget analysts have estimated that annual slots revenue could exceed $600 million. Opponents dispute the figure and say the revenue would not offset the social ills that accompany expanded gambling.

Slots supporters, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, say the referendum would help the state avoid another painful round of budget cuts and tax increases at a time when revenues are declining.

Lawmakers opted to let voters decide the contentious slots issue during a special session last fall that resulted in $1.4 billion in tax increases to address lingering budget deficits.

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