Monday, November 03, 2008

A Comment On Politicians and Slots

We have devoted a great deal of attention to the slots referendum in recent weeks. And it is a compelling issue regardless of which side you take. But even more compelling is the rank hypocrisy surrounding it – a stink of political flatulence that has become so toxic that it is impossible to ignore.

Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher skewered our two recent Governors, noting that Bob Ehrlich was for slots before he was against them, and that Martin O’Malley was against them before he was for them. Their actions may be understandable given the inherent tensions between campaigning and governing. Less understandable is the overnight metamorphosis of slots apologist-turned anti-slots jihadi Peter Franchot. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett looks better than any of the above, changing his position out of fear of budget cuts despite the unpopularity of slots in the county’s Democratic base.

But so far, the vast majority of our state legislators have gotten a pass. No more. We have chronicled their statements on slots to the Sentinel in recent weeks. We have also noted a general trend of how some of them claim to oppose slots while not signing on or donating money to the anti-slots campaign. Those posts have generated some pushback.

One annoyed legislator complained about an “anti-Democratic” email sent by Marylanders United to Stop Slots, the primary anti-slots group. The email began:

Annapolis is a mess. A scathing new report recently concluded that Annapolis bureaucrats can't account for horse racing revenues and that the potential for fraud is high. And guess what, this is the same bureaucratic department that will be in charge of collecting and administering potentially millions in slots receipts.
This legislator said the email “could come right out of a Bob Ehrlich campaign ad” and objected to the implication that sharing money with such a group was necessary to prove anti-slots bona fides. This legislator's view was amply supported by the anti-Annapolis TV ad run by the anti-slots group. Fair enough.

Further, the fact that the group relies heavily on staffers of former (and perhaps future) O’Malley rival Doug Duncan is probably an additional source of sensitivity. Who wants to risk the Governor’s wrath by working with his opponents?

Another legislator reported rumors that Big Daddy, a long-time slots supporter, was constructing a list of slots opponents who would be subject to a “bill moratorium.” In other words, those who actively opposed slots would get no bills through the Senate next year. “Mike Miller doesn’t care about many issues, but slots is one of them,” this individual whispered apprehensively. Whether such a list exists is beside the point – it is in Big Daddy’s interest that everyone believes the rumor to be true. Even a denial from his office (which is unlikely) would not quell the speculation.

These are the kinds of factors that drive many legislators’ decisions in Annapolis, and most of the time, this would be entirely appropriate. Relationships with the Governor, with Big Daddy, with leadership and with other legislators are vital to the success of any state officeholder.

But slots opponents have always cast the issue as, at least partially, a moral one. Gambling is wrong, they say. It creates addiction and crime. It preys on the weak, the poor and the helpless. It debases society. If all of this is true, then what is mere politics in the face of such an immoral scourge as slots?

Nevertheless, a rather large number of state legislators have engaged in the following four acts.

1. They have said they oppose slots in part because they are regressive.

2. They voted to approve a $700+ million regressive sales tax increase during the special session.

3. They held their noses and voted in favor of the slots referendum, vowing to defeat it later at the ballot box. (I defended this position a year ago, but promptly laid out a plan for how to beat the referendum.)

4. They then contributed no measurable or documentable aid to the anti-slots campaign.

No one who has engaged in all four of the actions above can credibly claim to be anti-slots. It defies logic. It defies common sense. It defies the intelligence of the voters. But it does follow the oily laws of politics.