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What was the point of slots, again?

There was plenty to be argued about during the second meeting of the work group considering expanded gambling and not all that much was agreed upon.

But a fairly basic question — why the slots program was started in the first place — also eluded the 12-member work group. In some ways, the answer depends on how one chooses to remember the past.

There’s little doubt that legalizing slots gambling was first proposed as a method to prop up the state’s flagging race horse industry. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich made it one of his legislative priorities each year he was in office, but never got House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and his chamber on board with the plan.

In 2006, The Washington Post reported that then-Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley also called for slots to be placed at racetracks in the state. The reason? The money would help prevent the “collapse” of the the racing industry.

“Yes, very clearly, it was to preserve and grow the industry,” said John McDaniel, commissioner of the Maryland Racing Commission.

But wait a minute. That’s not the question that was posed to voters in 2008, after the General Assembly passed legislation in 2007 authorizing a gambling referendum. That legislation created the Education Trust Fund which, under current law, gets 48.5 percent of slots revenue.

The ballot question, copied here from the Maryland State Board of Elections website, specifically says slots would be legalized to fund education:

Authorizes the State to issue up to five video lottery licenses for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education of children in public schools, prekindergarten through grade 12, public school construction and improvements, and construction of capital projects at community colleges and higher education institutions. No more than a total number of 15,000 video lottery terminals may be authorized in the State, and only one license may be issued for each specified location in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester, and Allegany Counties, and Baltimore City. Any additional forms or expansion of commercial gaming in Maryland is prohibited, unless approved by a voter referendum.

So, by the time the slots question got around to the voters, it had moved past saving the horse racing industry. It was all about education.

But, as late as October 2007 and just before a November special session was held to determine whether to allow slots parlors in the state, the public plan was still to legalize slots in order to save horse racing. When the ballot language mentioned only funding education, a lawsuit was filed claiming that the language was misleading, since 10.5 percent of slots revenue goes to racing purses and the Race Tracks Facility Renewal Account.

Almost five years later, the only argument that has reached a resolution is that Maryland is a gambling state. History indicates that where that gambling should be allowed — and why it’s allowed in the first place — may be a never-ending debate.