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Could slots be coming to Virginia?

March 16, 2003 1:09 am

WHAT FUN they're having in Maryland these days, having elected a Republican governor and rediscovering what politics with an actual two-party system can be like.

What's especially helpful is that Gov. Bob Ehrlich has chosen to pursue his agenda with a ferocity that few other than former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore would appreciate. But that's a particularly bad idea in Maryland, a historically Democratic state that since the Civil War has elected 23 Democratic governors but only six Republicans (including the late Spiro Agnew). Marylanders don't elect Republicans so much as they experiment with them.

While history is already portraying Gilmore as stubborn to a fault, Ehrlich is using the same apparently Republican trait to shove his program down the throat of a constituency that's not nearly so receptive as Gilmore's initially was.

What's even more disconcerting is that the former congressman ran and won based on a campaign that pitched him as a moderate. Of course, he stumped that way because he knew a hard-right platform would sink like a stone in Maryland.

But now, like so many power-drunk politicians, he's decided that his victory translates into a mandate to pursue his core values. Marylanders are finding out what it's like to vote for one agenda, but elect another. They may have been thrown off by his pro-choice stance on abortion, and assumed he must have a clear-headed approach on other issues, as well.

Ehrlich put that notion in doubt very quickly. Despite the state's moratorium on capital punishment, and the University of Maryland study that questioned the fairness and consistency of its use, Ehrlich was trying to set up an execution even before his victory-night champagne went flat.

Now, his promises of strong commitments to education and the environment have been reduced to bargaining chips in his mortal struggle to bring slot machines back to Maryland.

Gambling is among the issues where what happens in Maryland has an impact on Virginia. Aside from the shortsighted view that it will bring more bettors to the state's ailing racetracks and bridge a $1.2 billion budget shortfall--which is plenty for Ehrlich--all other aspects of slot machines are drawbacks.

Even supporters of slot machines acknowledge that the problems of crime, addiction, and family financial problems could swell negative public sentiment to the point that the machines could be outlawed again within a decade.

And let's make it clear that in other states where the "racino" concept is in place, studies show that slot players head to the track to play the slots, not the ponies. Horse-track operators don't expect slots to rescue the racing industry; they are counting on it to subsidize it. If the racing industry fails to succeed in addressing its own set of challenges, slots will remain the track owners' ace in the hole.

Ehrlich figures that if Marylanders want to waste their money on slot machines, they might as well do it in Maryland rather than West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. If Maryland approves his plan, similar thinking will threaten to spread the cancer to Virginia, which wouldn't want to see its own potential slot-machine dollars escaping to nearby Maryland. The spread of state lotteries followed a similar pattern 30 years ago.

Concerns about piers into the Potomac, which belongs entirely to Maryland, are valid, but pale to the impact of legal, statewide casino gambling in Virginia.

So in the face of stiffening opposition to his slot-machine plan, Ehrlich decided to increase the number of allowed machines from 10,500 to 12,000, slash the up-front licensing fees to be paid by the track operators, and, consequently, reduce the slot revenues dedicated to public-school education.

You can just hear Gilmore yelling, "Go, Bob, go!"

They seem to share a strange political philosophy under which you counter opposition to your plan by making it even less appealing.

Gilmore's strategy to keep his no-car-tax pledge on track was to lop off funding for colleges, parks, state employees--or anything else that Virginia takes pride in. At the end of his term, he handed off his no-tax carrot just in time to leave a new administration on the edge of a cliff.

To put an alternative to slot machines on the table, a group of Maryland lawmakers has proposed an income-tax increase on the state's wealthiest residents that would be curtailed after two years. The top bracket would be increased from 4.75 percent to 6 percent. At worst, a single person making $125,000 a year would have to pay $128 more in state income tax.

That's a small price to pay to avoid the raft of problems, not to mention the ugly reputation, that slot machines will surely bring.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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