- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | With the economy turning up lemons for state tax revenues, a growing array of public employees are hoping legalized slot machines will turn up cherries for their funding.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland joined the roster of state workers, teachers and university administrators already supporting the plan, along with horse breeders and others with an economic stake in the November ballot referendum.

State officials led by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, are counting on an estimated $660 million in slots revenues, when all of the up to 15,000 proposed machines are installed, to pay for expanded government services.

“Budget problems flow downhill and if the slots referendum doesn’t pass the state will reduce county funds — cutting public safety,” LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of the firefighters association, said Wednesday.

Slots supporters have been led by a staff of Annapolis veterans, including Steve Kearney, Mr. O’Malley’s former communications director, and Fred Puddester, a former budget secretary and Mr. O’Malley’s pick to chair the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Opponents of the plan have cobbled together a more varied cast, relying on religious leaders, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats to attack the plan.

The Maryland Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group with strong ties among Maryland conservatives, came out against the slots amendment this week.

“Maryland can’t tax and gamble its way to prosperity, or spend itself out of a deficit,” Herb McMillan, president of the association, said this week. “Excessive spending and higher taxes are the root causes of Maryland’s economic problems. Slots will not solve these problems.”

Maryland lawmakers expect to face a $1 billion shortfall when they return to Annapolis in January and Mr. O’Malley plans to cut the budget between $250 and $300 million in the coming weeks.

Revenue from slot machines would not fix the immediate budget troubles the state faces, but would pay for increased spending in future budgets, including increased health care and education spending.

Slots supporters have used the state’s budget troubles to help bolster their case. While Mr. O’Malley has been largely quiet on the issue, his surrogates have argued that the state could face large tax increases or massive budget cuts if the slots plan fails.

Slots opponents have relied on a mix of moral and budgetary arguments. They have also focused more on the semantics of the slots ballot language, arguing in a court that the referendum is misleading to voters.

In one of the more nuanced approaches to the slots debate, the House Republican Caucus said it was opposing Mr. O’Malley’s slots plan in favor of its own plan, which would raise more money in upfront licensing fees.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, in an e-mail Thursday, fended off attacks from the pro-slots group For Maryland For Our Future, which labeled him “Phony Tony” for switching his position on legalized gambling.

“I call on Steve Kearney to strike his words,” said Mr. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican. Mr. Kearney “should be ashamed of himself for putting out this kind of personal political attack.”

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