In many ways, Maryland's current debate over legalized gambling is depressingly familiar. Faced with a loophole-ridden and unfair tax system that cries out for progressive reform, some elected officials want to introduce thousands of slot machines as a politically palatable revenue-raising alternative. But Maryland offers an interesting, if bizarre, twist. Governor Martin O'Malley's administration is arguing that slot machines would make an excellent economic development tool for propping up the state's ailing horse-racing industry.
About the best one can say about the idea of providing tax subsidies for such a small and distinctly 19th-century industry is that it's less expensive than the more conventional smokestack-chasing other states continue to engage in. But Maryland isn't the first state that's had this idea -- and neighboring Delaware's experience has not exactly yielded dividends for that state's racing industry. And as an excellent Washington Post editorial explains, the environmental and economic policy goals the administration allegedly seeks to achieve with slots are a red herring.
The author of the O'Malley administration report that makes the economic development-based pitch for slots, Thomas Perez, claims that the introduction of slots in neighboring states has "revitalized the previously moribund horse racing industries in those states." Perez describes his report as "a fact finding tour of racetracks in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania." Perez's research techniques included counting the number of Maryland license plates in a West Virginia parking lot -- but his time might have been better spent just asking West Virginia's Racing Commission chairman, who sees "no correlation... inverse, in fact" between their 1994 introduction of slots at racetracks and the current health of that state's racing industry.