Here Come the Slots -- Again

February 10, 1991

Four years ago, we warned that if Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly permitted the return of slot machines to eight Eastern Shore counties that other counties would seek similar approval. Legalized gambling devices would spread haphazardly with little supervision or strict accounting for the tens of millions of dollars sure to be poured into these one-armed bandits.

Now it is happening. Legislators from three counties -- Harford, Baltimore and Worcester -- are seeking to legalize slot machines in their jurisdictions, all making the came claims: the gambling devices would be allowed only in fraternal and non-profit service organization buildings; only five slots would be permitted per organization, and it would raise oodles of money for these groups to use for charitable and community good deeds.

If that's the case, then every jurisdiction in Maryland should have legalized slots. In fact, the state itself should get into the business. It surely would raise enough money to balance the budget and avert any tax increases.

But the sad truth is that legalized gambling of this sort is dangerous. It is a haven for underworld groups eager to divert money from slots into their own pockets. Law-enforcement officials know there is no way they can stop this kind of illegal "skimming" when the devices are spread out in so many locations. It is a situation tailor-made for criminal elements.

Baltimore County legislators have withdrawn their bill so County Executive Roger Hayden can study the question. He should listen to the warnings of his law-enforcement officials and squelch this ominous proposal. But two other slots bills, for Harford and Worcester counties, remain alive. Worcester's is especially insidious because it would lure tens of thousands of potential gamblers from nearby beaches. So much for Ocean City's "family image."

These slots bills should be given quick burial in the legislature. Mr. Schaefer said in 1987 that while he would sign the bill legalizing slot machines in eight Eastern Shore counties, he would veto any expansion attempts. Let him renew this pledge. Turning Maryland into a gamblers' mecca is neither sound economic development nor a worthy charitable activity. It is a recipe for disaster.

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