- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A new poll Monday shows support for legalizing slot machines in Maryland continued to shrink - one day before state budget officials plan to release numbers showing growing budget problems that lawmakers had hoped to fix with slots revenue.

The referendum in November to legalize as many as 15,000 slot machines at five locations throughout the state was supported by 49 percent of those polled and opposed by 43 percent. The drop in support from January, when 54 percent supported the measure and 38 percent opposed the slots plan, happened across all demographic groups polled.

“This thing is still up in the air,” said Laslo V. Boyd, of the polling company, Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who drafted and signed the slots plan during last year’s special session to help close a $1.5 billion budget deficit, has been relatively quiet on the issue, even as analysts have predicted a new budget gap of about $1 billion.

Slot machines would cover about $50 million, or 5 percent, of that projected shortfall in 2010. The machines are expected to bring in about $660 million for the state once they are fully implemented in 2013.

Facing declining revenues, the state’s chief tax collector Monday called on leaders to establish a task force to study the state’s spending practices.

“We simply cannot tax, or gamble, our way out of fiscal and economic distress,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said in a letter to Mr. O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Democrats.

“Tomorrow’s data will simply reinforce what has long been obvious - that Maryland families and businesses alike are stretched to their limits, if not beyond their means,” Mr. Franchot said.

Slots supporters have been broadly critical of opponents, criticizing them for not outlining how they would replace the anticipated revenue.

Unlike his predecessor, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr, a Republican who failed to get slots legislation passed during his four-year terms, Mr. O’Malley succeeded in passing a slots plan. However, he has been relatively quiet in his support.

“I don’t think he is yet seen as highly visible as a slots proponent,” Mr. Boyd said.

Mr. O’Malley, speaking Monday on the “Marc Steiner Show” said he supports slots machines but would not “twist arms” to get votes.

“I am in favor of it, I continue to be in favor of it,” he said. “I’m not sure how many other ways I can state that.”

Fred Puddester, chairman of For Maryland For Our Future, the state’s pro-slots umbrella group, would not answer questions about whether the group would include Mr. O’Malley in ad campaigns.

“I can’t speak for the governor,” said Mr. Puddester, who was appointed to the pro-slots job by Mr. O’Malley. “He makes appearances every day, he says he’s supportive of that. I don’t know what else there is to say about that.”

The poll of 833 registered voters taken last week, includes a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Marylanders also are starting to give back support to Mr. O’Malley, showing a 45 percent approval rating, up from 37 percent in March; and 35 percent disapproval, down 13 points from March, according to the poll.

“The poll shows that the people of Maryland are beginning to recognize that Governor O’Malley has been a tireless fighter for our middle-class families, making tough decisions to protect investments in public education, public heath and public safety, and freezing college tuition for the third-year in a row,” O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

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