Slots Foes Cry Foul Over Ballot Language

OCEAN CITY – As expected, slots opponents locally and across Maryland this week strongly opposed the official language in the referendum question drafted by Secretary of State John McDonough, a former lobbyist for the gaming industry, because of its perceived pro-slots bias, and some have threatened to file suit to have it changed.

Voters across Maryland will likely settle the slots issue once and for all in November when they head to the polls to cast their ballots on a referendum question calling for an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow 15,000 of the gaming devices at five locations including Ocean Downs in Worcester County. However, many slots opponents now believe the official wording in the ballot question released this week has a pro-slots bias and could steer those still on the fence on the issue to vote in favor of the measure.

Protocol calls for Maryland’s Secretary of State to submit the official ballot language for the constitutional amendment to legalize slots, but when McDonough formally submitted the referendum question to the state’s Board of Elections on Monday, slots opponents cried foul because they believe it unfairly extols the virtues of the gaming devices without any mention of their potential downside.

Critics claim McDonough’s ballot question points out how the revenue generated by slots will be a panacea of sorts for the state’s public education system, which could steer those still neutral on the issue to vote in favor of the gaming machines. 

“For the purpose of raising revenue for education of children in public schools, pre-kindergarten through grade 12, public school construction and improvements, and construction of capital projects at community colleges and higher education institutions,” the official ballot question reads. It goes on to say, “any additional forms of expansion of commercial gambling in Maryland is prohibited, unless approved by voter referendum.”

Slots foes blasted the referendum question for its perceived pro-slots language and the background of its author. McDonough spent 20 years working as a lobbyist for the gambling industry in Maryland, including a long stint as an employee of the Rosecroft racetrack, and although that facility is not one of the five sites earmarked for slots, it could stand to reap some of the revenue directed as saving the sagging racing industry.

McDonough said in a statement he anticipated some backlash about the language in the ballot question, but stood by the wording and dismissed any notion he was beholden to his former bosses. 

“So, while I am sure advocates on one side or the other, or both, will probably have criticisms, I am satisfied I carried out my statutory duty to fairly summarize the intent and meaning of the proposed amendment without arguing for or against it,” he said.

However, anti-slots groups across Maryland reacted as anticipated when the official wording was released on Monday, calling out McDonough for emphasizing the perceived positives of slots while failing to mention a single word about their potential negative impacts.

“This is nothing more than sugar-coated pro-slots cheerleading,” said Stop Slots Maryland chairman Aaron Meisner. “This is what you get when you take a 20-year gambling lobbyist and you hand him the levers of power and ask him to draft language that’s supposed to yield a fair and reasonable result.”

Another anti-slots group, Marylanders United to Stop Slots, reacted similarly to the wording in the ballot question, calling it a cheap political trick carried out on the voters of Maryland.

“Marylanders deserve better than this kind of politicking,” said Marylanders United to Stop Slots senior advisor Scott Arceneaux. “If Secretary McDonough wants to make the language partial to highlight the supposed benefits of slot casinos, why doesn’t he also include the negatives? Where in the question does it explain to voters that slot casinos will bring crime and personal bankruptcies, and wreak havoc on communities while creating a monopoly that will enrich a handful of gambling executives? Today’s ballot question reinforces that we can’t trust Annapolis to act in the best interest of Maryland families.”

Closer to home, the strong anti-slots front in Ocean City, including the Chamber of Commerce, continues to lobby against placing the gaming machines at nearby Ocean Downs, specifically, and anywhere else in the state in general. Although he had not seen the official ballot question language this week, Chamber President Mark Leiner said he was not surprised with the outcome.

“One of my biggest issues with this is, if it’s such a great idea and it’s going to provide all of this revenue for education, then why doesn’t the state own the casinos?” he said. “If this is so great, then why doesn’t the state take all the risk and then take all the profit?”

Leiner also said allowing slots at nearby Ocean Downs would only jeopardize an existing cash cow for the state in Ocean City.

“Ocean City is the second-largest tax revenue provider for the state, but you have to believe slots will jeopardize that,” he said. “If gambling comes in, that will take a big cut out of discretionary spending, and that means money not spent in the restaurants, hotels, on golf or fishing or all of the other wonderful things Ocean City has to offer already. It’s going to kill a lot of small businesses and things are tough enough already.”