False promises

Originally published in the Frederick News-Post

Voters around the state approved slot machines in 2008. Only one slots casino is open, in Perryville. The rest have been tied up by lawsuits and disqualified bids and, in the case of Rocky Gap, zero interest by casino developers at the Western Maryland resort. Voters in Anne Arundel County will vote Nov. 2 on a referendum question determining whether slots will come to Arundel Mills mall.

David Cordish, whose firm will develop the mall if voters approve the measure, is hitting the streets to promote his cause, knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature. That the 70-year-old billionaire would pound the pavement seeking votes speaks volumes about how much money is at stake -- for him.

Voters have been promised various sums, starting at $800 million per year. The official figure is now $600 million per year, half of which will allegedly pay to build schools. So far, state taxpayers only have a $50 million bill to show for them, as the state decided to buy and lease video lottery terminals.

Eventually those expensive machines will make money. And building the resorts means more construction jobs and ones for employees helping patrons to fill state tax coffers. But slots, or the full-blown casinos likely to follow them, will never save Maryland schools or close chronic state budget deficits in the same way the 2007 tax increases could not plug the deficit and will be followed by even more in coming years. The reason: The state cannot live within its means.

That's why it's hard to believe the optimistic financial picture Cordish paints in a letter to local business leaders about the referendum posted by Paul Foer of Annapolis Capital Punishment. "A vote FOR Question A will help ensure the creation of thousands of jobs for Anne Arundel County citizens, hundreds of million of dollars a year in revenues for the State Education Trust Fund, and at least thirty million a year in new revenue for the Anne Arundel County government to help balance its budget without raising taxes."

First, Maryland public officials may create trust funds dedicated to specific issues like roads or schools, but they frequently raid them to balance the budget. This year the state took hundreds of millions of dollars from highways to use on other projects, among other transfers, and issued debt in its place. So it's almost a given that money will be taken from an education trust fund for other purposes. Nationally, many gambling measures passed with campaigns promising to fund schools only to have the rules changed after the bills became law.

Second, if counties are required to contribute a greater share of teachers' retirement in coming years, Anne Arundel and other counties will have to find more than $30 million in new revenue each year to cover the annual bill, which keeps rising and is about $1 billion overall. The Maryland Senate last year passed a bill that would have started to shift teacher pension costs to the counties, but it was not approved by the House.

Maryland voters have already decided they want slots. Anne Arundel voters just have to decide where to locate them. Unfortunately, wherever they come online across the state, taxpayers can count on them only to fuel bigger spending and growing Maryland state government even larger.


Marta Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. She lives in Baltimore. E-mail her at mmossburg@mdpolicy.org.