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Political Animal

The Big Gamble

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/26/2003

Nobody likes taxes. Everybody likes services. And there's no such thing as something for nothing.

It's these three competing concepts that form the vision of the train wreck to come regarding the state budget for the coming year. We've all had it drilled into us for years: The state of Maryland cannot constitutionally run a deficit. The budget must be balanced.

George W. Bush hasn't helped. His aversion to taxes and predilection toward tax cuts for the rich has taken an economy that began with projected surpluses and sent it toward deficits as far the eye can see. The states are saddled with mandates, hobbled by costs of homeland defense, and drained by health-care expenses.

Sooner or later, someone's gotta pay. And like it or not, people, that's us.

Governor Smooth--that's "Bobby" to the six-figure-income crowd--wants to pay for the gap in revenue with a tax on the stupid--that is to say, slot machines.

It's understandable when you think about it. People who play slots are giving their money away, and they know this. Maybe there's some logic to letting people who hate paying taxes simply sit down next to a machine and give the state their money one quarter (or five or six or nine) at a time. Plus, if we're lucky, people will drive in from other states and give us their money as well.

Governor Smooth certainly understands what it's like to have people give him money--the gambling lobby gave him $121,260 in campaign contributions, according to Common Cause/Maryland. Of course, no one would ever give anyone more than 120,000 smackers without any need for a quid pro quo, would they? (Speaking of quid pro quo, they can save $92,000 in taxpayer dollars by killing off that position-without-portfolio job for Clarence Mitchell IV. It may not sound like much, but you've got to start somewhere.)

For its $121,000, the gambling industry would ostensibly get 10,500 slot machines at four racetracks, and the state would ratchet up its junkie-like fix on gambling as a way to solve all budget problems. We have the lottery, we have Keno (the "ultimate game for suckers," as a Las Vegas acquaintance of ours says), and now slots.

What happens in two years when even slots can't stem the red ink? Casinos at the Inner Harbor?

In February 1992, then-Del. Bobby Not-Quite-as-Smooth Ehrlich (R-Baltimore County) proposed just that--casino gambling at the Inner Harbor's Power Plant. Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell told The Sun, after the old proposed legislation was dug up recently by pro-gambling Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore City), that in effect, that was then and this is now. In big-time politics, that is what is called a "flip-flop."

The question is, what stops them from lying in the future? Picture the headline in 2005: "Ehrlich Proposes Casino Gambling at Inner Harbor." Then a spokesman could trot out the all-purpose statement: That was then and this is now.

Nobody can fault the governor for not wanting to cut local aid or lay off state employees. And during the campaign, he even made his pitch for the "little guy." "When the budget crunch happened," The Sun reported him saying last September, "it was the poor people who took a disproportionate hit."

That's almost a thigh-slapper when you consider that Ehrlich sneers at making big corporations pay their fair share of taxes. For instance, letting companies like Toys "R" Us (or even City Paper, for example) create shell companies in Delaware to avoid paying Maryland corporate taxes. Back in 1980, corporate taxes made up 5.5 percent of general fund revenue. By 2000, it fell a full point to 4.5 percent--not bad for the state right-wingers call the "People's Republic of Maryland."

Well, yes! Making someone pay something when they're currently paying nothing could technically be called "raising taxes." Some might even say it sounds a lot more fair than larding up the state with 10,000 slot machines to benefit those "poor people" taking a "disproportionate hit."

The fact is, the state has any number of options, including, yes, raising taxes. The state's alcohol tax hasn't been changed since Richard Nixon was president. We here at Animal Control don't like this any more than anyone else fond of frosty hop-based beverages, but so-called "sin taxes" have beneficial social aspects, as opposed to the creation of sins, like legalizing slots.

House Democratic leaders are looking at alternatives that include some of the above, but they face tough odds from a pro-gambling leadership on the Senate side and a governor on the record against raising taxes. Despite a large crossover vote, Ehrlich knows that the easiest way to annoy his conservative base in just his first year as governor is to raise any taxes, most especially income taxes--you can bet a one-time tax on the wealthy is an idea that will never make it past the desk on the second floor of the State House.

There's a train wreck a-coming, folks, if only because the governor has piled on the coal of slots and broken off the brake. Look out ahead!

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