The State of Maryland projects a $1.2 billion budget shortfall this year. Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) wants the legislature to approve slot machines at racetracks and shore up revenues with an estimated $800 million a year in new gambling profits.
Maryland's decision is being closely watched, as it may be a bellwether for other states that are in similar straits to, well, follow suit.
Some 16 states have gaming expansion legislation pending. Last November, gambling initiatives were on the ballot in six states; they passed in four. Eight states already have approved slots at racetracks. No wonder; the gambling industry is one of the fastest-growing financial contributors to political campaigns. Governor Ehrlich himself accepted more than $100,000 from the gaming industry.
But this quick-fix promise of new money without new taxes is a false one. It feeds an addiction, both for the gambler and for the states that can quickly become dependent on such income.
Antigambling activists rightly point out that personal bankruptcy rates go up 14 percent within a 50-mile radius of casinos. So does crime, by an average of 8 percent. Yet states rarely study such community impact. Thirty-six states don't offer any kind of gambling-addiction treatment program.
"States often see this as a tax on the willing; but it's also a tax on the unwell," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Other, more sensible and long-term approaches to states' huge budget deficits include tax hikes and spending cuts. Many states are considering those, even though they're tough choices to make. They can carry more political liability with impatient voters.
Voters should remember that states got themselves into their current budget binds during a 1990s spending binge. And while the dollar signs of casinos, slot machines, or lotteries dazzle, they hold out false hope of regaining financial stability.
States should pay more attention to an old saying regarding gambling: "If you win you're a thief; if you lose, you're a fool. Take your pick."