High Court Agrees Slots Referendum Needs One Word

 BERLIN – Maryland’s highest court this week rejected an attempt to void the ballot question on the statewide referendum on slots set for November after opposition groups challenged what they believe is misleading language, but the judges did uphold a decision by a lower court last week to add a single word to the ballot to make its intent clearer to the voters.

When Secretary of State John McDonough released the official slots referendum ballot question last month, slots opponents cried foul because they believed the language had the potential to mislead voters because it read “for the purpose of providing funds for education” without enumerating the various other beneficiaries of the revenue. Anti-slots groups challenged the ballot question, filing suit in Anne Arundel Circuit Court asking a three-judge panel to reject it and force McDonough and the state to go back and re-write a more equitable ballot question.

Last week, the Anne Arundel Circuit Court rejected the anti-slots groups’ claims and upheld the ballot question as written, despite voicing some serious misgivings with the language. Instead, the lower court judges ordered the word “primary” be inserted in the ballot question in an attempt to make it understood to voters that public education alone was not the sole beneficiary of revenue generated by slots. The     ballot question would then read “for the primary purpose of providing funds for education.”

Unsatisfied with the decision, the anti-slots groups, including Stop Slots Maryland and NoCasiNo Maryland, among others, filed an emergency appeal to have the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, rule on the issue. On Monday, the Court of Appeals issued a brief per curiam order upholding the decision of the lower court and agreed with the insertion of the word “primary” in the ballot question.

At issue is whether the addition of the single word “primary” in the ballot language is enough to suggest to the voters there are considerable other earmarks set to receive funds from the revenue generated by slots.

Slots opponents are clearly unsatisfied with the ruling and continue to claim the language in the ballot question does not inform voters of all of the other recipients of the proceeds. They contend the ballot is written to suggest public education is the sole recipient of the vast revenue generated by slots if approved.

“Conveniently omitting any reference to companion appropriation bills, this proposal makes no mention of the multitude of extracurricular activities which will take priority in reaping these proceeds,” the appellants brief reads. “Nor does it disclose that legislators have already voted to channel these funds away from the classroom in several of these appropriation bills. Though the legislature claimed that these funds will improve public education, its appropriations acts speak louder than the misleading words of the amendment and proposed ballot.”

Local business organizations including the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce remain steadfastly opposed to slots and its leaders decried the decision of the Court of Appeals this week.

“If the state is going to present a referendum question like that, it should also spell out all of the things the revenue is going to,” said Chamber President Todd Ferrante. “They need to present the entire picture. I think a lot of people might be surprised.”

Ferrante said simply adding the word “primary” to the ballot question will not paint the true picture of what the voters decide when they get behind the curtain at the polls.

“They decided adding the word ‘primary’ will satisfy the issue and won’t mislead the voters,” Ferrante said. “What can I say? I hope the voters do their homework before they get behind that curtain. The voters have a right to know.”

Chamber Executive Director Melanie Pursel agreed the high court’s ruling does not address the misleading language in the slots referendum question. Pursel said many uninformed voters would likely be persuaded to vote in favor of slots when they read the question.

“The language in the ballot is unfortunate and we remain adamantly opposed to it, even with the addition of the word primary,” she said. “We feel that most people will have made up their minds when they go to vote, but many won’t decide until they get to the polls. Unfortunately, the people who aren’t sure are going to be swayed by the clearly one-sided language in the ballot question.”

While the revised ballot question continues to put forth the revenue generated by slots will be dedicated primarily to public education, it does not list the other recipients for the revenue, which has been a source of confusion. It’s important at this point to detail just how the revenue from the proposed slots will be divided, according to language in the companion bill.

First of all, 87 cents of every dollar played in slot machines, or 87 percent, must be returned as winnings to the slots players. The remaining 13 percent is then divided among the dedicated recipients spelled out in the legislation.

According to the bill, 33 percent would be paid to the operators to recover investment and operating expenses. Another 2 percent would be paid to the State Lottery Commission, which would own and operate the machines. Seven percent would be set aside to support the horse racing industry in the form of a purse fund up to $100 million annually. Another 2.5 percent would be set aside for facilities renewal for the first eight years up to $40 million annually.

Another 1.5 percent would be put into an account to support small, minority-owned or woman-owned businesses. Five-and-a-half percent would go to local impact grants to be used in the communities where the venues are located. Finally, 48.5 percent would be earmarked for education for the first eight years, increasing to 51 percent in out years.

To put it in simpler terms, if the revenue from slots totaled $100 million, which is obviously a low number but easy to understand in terms of the breakdown, $87 million would be returned to the slots players in the form of winnings.

In even more simpler terms, if after the 87 percent for the winners is set aside the remaining revenue

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