SNOW HILL – The slim hope of a referendum letting Worcester County citizens decide for once and all whether to allow slots within county borders was definitively extinguished with last week’s General Assembly vote to hold a statewide referendum.
The even slimmer chance of seeing the Ocean Downs racetrack removed from the bill as a slot machine site also proved ephemeral, with a decision to take the site out of the bill last week lasting less than a day before it was back in.
The General Assembly ultimately approved a bill requiring a statewide referendum in November 2008.
“I was glad that happened. I thought all along that’s the way it should go,” said Commissioner Bobby Cowger, who made a different decision two weeks ago when he voted to approve a letter avowing the county commissioners’ opposition to slot machines.
Less than a week later he had changed his mind, saying he regretted the vote and that the people should decide.
“The people of the state and county need to have a say in it,” Cowger said. “It’s too controversial of an issue to depend on a few people.”
Two weeks ago, Commissioner Virgil Shockley voted against the letter opposing slots gambling in Worcester County.
“What I personally would have liked to have seen would have let the voters of Worcester County make that decision all by themselves,” said Shockley.
Shockley fears Worcester County will have little effect on a statewide vote.
“In the scheme of things, the 20,000 votes you’ll get out of Worcester can’t make or break it,” he said.
Commissioner Linda Busick said the people would decide the issue once and for all.
“The people will have the opportunity to express what they want,” said Busick. “It looks as though we’re going to have the slots.”
Busick supported the letter of opposition.
Commissioner Judy Boggs, who voted against the anti-slots letter, said, “I would have preferred a Worcester County referendum. As far as I know, there’s a much better chance of the referendum passing statewide.”
Eighteen jurisdictions in Maryland will receive money from slot machines, but see no impact, Boggs said, so there is no incentive for those counties to vote against slot machines gambling.
The two commissioners who led the anti-slots charge, Commissioner Bud Church and Commissioner Louise Gulyas, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The commissioners are widely seen as having waited too long to interject their opinion into the debate, but according to Shockley, during a meeting Oct. 22 with the Eastern Shore delegation of Maryland lawmakers, the week before the special session started, he did tell them that the commissioners wanted a referendum.
“They were right there and the question came up,” Shockley said. “Nobody corrected me.”
The commissioners thought they were registering their opinion in advance of the January General Assembly session, he said.
Somehow, this statement seems to have made little impact during the recent debate, and Busick said she does not think earlier involvement would have made a difference.
“The issue’s been around for quite some time, and they were pretty well determined that certain areas would get it,” she said.
Last week, Busick said she had not been aware the special session and slots were being fast-tracked.
“I would have liked to have had a work session. I would have like to have more information,” she said.
Cowger said the public should have been allowed to weigh in on the matter.
“We definitely should have had two or three public hearings on that,” Cowger said this week.
Boggs agreed, saying, “I would not have objected to a public hearing, [but] the County Commissioners as a body didn’t decide to have a public hearing.”
Busick said she thought the county might sponsor some informational meetings on slot machine gambling before the referendum next fall.
Slot machines have been on the state’s agenda for years, but Worcester County, despite asking for a county referendum, never held one itself.
Cowger said the commissioners “got hung up” with other stuff and were not aware that the slot machine movement had pushed so far ahead. They did not realize the covernor was going to call a special session so soon, Cowger said, and really expected to see slots come up in the regular General Assembly session in the new year.
Boggs added the county did not have time to go the referendum route on its own because of the quick special session.
“You don’t go through the expense of having a referendum if it’s not on the table. I don’t think anyone can anticipate what the legislature is going to do.”
The state referendum should pass easily, Shockley said, predicting a 60 to 65 percent pro-slots result.
The presidential election the same day will bring out the voters, Cowger said.
“You’re going to get the turn out,” Shockley agreed. “You’re going to see some people who would not normally go vote.”