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 to be divvied up is $100 million, $33 million would go to the
operators, the State Lottery Commission would get $2 million, $7 million would
go to the horse racing industry, $2.5 million would go to facilities renewal,
the small business fund would get $1.5 million, the local impact grant fund
would get $5.5 million, and, finally, education would receive $48.5 million.

Anti-slots groups
contend the current language in the referendum question, even with the
insertion of the word “primary” before “purpose,” does not illustrate to the
voters where the revenue will go.

“It would appear that
the legislative maneuvering and manipulation of the process by the slots lobby
paid off and the judges could not act,” said Scott Arceneaux of Marylanders
United Against Slots. “But what has been revealed in this process should be
jarring to the voters. Essentially, the pro-slots contingent is and has been
playing hide the ball with the voters. They placed the things people would like
in one bill and the things voters may not like in another and kept the latter
in the closet, but the curtain has been thrown back and the true nature of this
process revealed.”

However, pro-slots
groups reveled in the decision by the high court this week.

“We are pleased that the
Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the attempt by anti-slots activists to

block the November referendum on slots,” said Fred Puddester, chairman for Maryland for Our Future.

“We consider their approval of the ballot language with only a one-word change
a victory.”

 

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