Some Legislators Feel Slots Are Not The Answer

OCEAN CITY – While the area’s representatives in Annapolis all agree resolving the state’s projected $1.5 billion deficit will be the top issue in the upcoming General Assembly session, they clearly disagree with slots as part of the debt-busting equation.

Local legislators, in Ocean City this week to brief resort business leaders on issues of local import in next year’s General Assembly session, all agreed the biggest obstacle to overcome was the state’s estimated $1.5 billion structural deficit. With spending pulling away from projected revenue, the state government will have to reconcile the debt with a variety of methods including, but not limited to, cutting funding for state and local agencies or increasing various taxes and fees or a combination of both.

Looming out there, as it has for the last several years, is the issue of legalized slot machines in Maryland, which is viewed by some as an instant panacea for the state’s budget woes. Given the choice between slots and the alternatives, which include cutting programs and/or raising taxes, many state lawmakers are looking to the gaming machines as a way out of the financial crisis.

After several failed attempts, many believe this could be the year slots are approved in Maryland, including lobbyist Dennis Rasmussen, who represents the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce in Annapolis. Rasmussen told resort Economic Development Committee (EDC) members this week this could be the year the gaming machines are approved in Maryland given the state’s current economic climate.

“Clearly, slots are going to be a very, very big issue,” he said. “I really believe this is the year the governor and the General Assembly take a real hard look at passing slots.”

It remains uncertain how the general public in the area feels about slots, and only a referendum or straw poll on the issue would truly provide a barometer for local opinion on the issue, but the resort business community has taken a clear stance in opposition. During the Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo) meeting in Ocean City last month, many resort businesses boldly boasted the message “No Slots in Maryland. Period,” on their marquees, in an effort to let state lawmakers know how they feel about the divisive issue. The Ocean City Mayor and Council have also taken a formal position in opposition to slots, particularly anywhere near the tourism-dependent resort area.

For their part, local legislators have attempted to follow the will of their constituents for the most part, although it has become increasingly difficult with the projected deficit and the alternatives of cutting programs or raising taxes on the table. State Senator Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38), who represents Worcester and much of the Lower Shore, told EDC members on Wednesday he remains adamantly opposed to slots anywhere in the state. Stoltzfus cited the potential impact on tourism in Ocean City and the rest of his district as reason enough to oppose the gaming machines.

“You all know how I feel,” he said. “I’m opposed to slots everywhere, especially in Ocean City. If they spend out at the racetrack, they’re not spending it in here.”

Stoltzfus said he has listened to his constituents on the issue and hasn’t heard any unified voice in favor of slots. He also said if state lawmakers choose slots as a means to resolve the budget issues, he would continue to oppose them anywhere near his district.

“I haven’t heard any group in Ocean City say they want this,” he said. “If they do come to Maryland, I will do everything I can to keep them out of Ocean City.”

Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38B) was less adamant about his opposition to slots, although he stopped short of flat-out opposing them. For years when Mathias was mayor of Ocean City, he often testified against the gaming machines, particularly at Ocean Downs, but when it appeared they might become inevitable, he softened his fierce opposition to what amounted to a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach.

His reasoning, which he calls consequence management, believes if slots are approved somewhere on the way to Ocean City and the resort area, some of the tourist’s dollars would be absorbed before they get here. Mathias also said on Wednesday slots could be a means to avoid tax increases.

“Back when I was mayor of Ocean City, we started talking about consequence management,” he said. “Maybe slot machines at a minimum can be a mechanism for tax maintenance.”

Mathias said this week slots opponents like to point out the potential disasters involved in other states where they are already up and running, but he said there is no evidence of any pending disasters.

“Opponents look at Delaware and West Virginia and say look at the train wrecks happening there,” he said. “Well, I’m still looking for the train wrecks to happen. Their economies are still moving forward.”

The local delegate said he would keep an open mind when he goes into the session this year and listen to all of his constituents on the slots issue.

“When I hear you say ‘this isn’t good for us,’ I get that. I understand,” he said. “But when I get in the car and start heading west on the shore, I hear ‘we need this to save our farm.’ I have to be open-minded. Maybe there’s a way to manage and control it.”