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Question 1: Going 'All In' with Maryland's Casino Money?

Mary Rose Madden

Back in 2008 and again in 2012 Maryland lawmakers and gambling advocates sold voters on slots and casinos by telling them all that revenue would boost the state's education budget. But that money only replaced existing funds rather than adding to them.

So, come Election Day in Maryland this year, voters will get to decide on an amendment to the state Constitution that would require that gambling revenues slated for schools be used to supplement existing money rather than replace it.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, says state lawmakers knew they had to put something in front of voters that would secure the money garnered from casinos to truly add to the state’s education budget; a “lockbox.”  

“Just since 2009, that first year we had slots, somewhere near $2 billion has been generated,” he said.

But Maryland governors from both parties found ways to put casino money into the education budget and move money that was already there elsewhere in the general fund.

Critics call it bait and switch and Eberly says that’s fair.

“People went to the polls expecting that this money would be added to education funding,” Eberly said.

Now, groups like Strong Schools Maryland and BEE – Baltimoreans for Educational Equity--are out knocking on doors to get people out to vote, not for a candidate but for Question One, the “lockbox” amendment.

Wesley Hawkins is among them. Hawkins says when he knocks on doors, people want to know, “If the casinos are not going to fund the schools then why did I vote for the casinos?”

Alex Reese, the resident principal of KIPP Academy on Greenspring Avenue. Is another one campaigning for the amendment.

He says, “when it rains outside, it rains inside my office. It’s hot when it should be cold,” and vice versa.

Reese and others from Strong Schools Maryland say they’re trying to “harness the outrage,” from the last few school years when students were stuck in schools with burst pipes and falling ceilings; when photographs of students wearing hats and winter coats in their classrooms made national news, and when schools in the city and Baltimore County were forced to close on hot days because classrooms were sweltering.

He says almost everyone he talks to says they’ll vote yes on the referendum and that they want Question One to pass by a large margin to show the General Assembly there is statewide support for education issues.

But just because Question One has bi-partisan support doesn’t mean it’s absent of politics, says Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College.

“One of the first ads Larry Hogan ran in his re-election campaign urged voters to support the amendment,” she says. “The problem with that is that it’s a bit disingenuous.”

Democrats first proposed the “lockbox” amendment during the last General Assembly session. Two weeks later, Governor Hogan announced his support for “lockbox” legislation, arguing that a Constitutional amendment wasn’t necessary.

Now, Deckman says, “it looks as though it’s Larry Hogan’s initiative when in fact that’s not really true.

If Question One passes, those billions from the casinos would be tacked on to the statewide schools education budget – forcing politicians to keep their promise from a decade ago.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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