Will Maryland Roll the Dice?

April 26, 1991

If advocates had their way, Maryland soon would be an East Coast gambler's dream. There would be slot machines in every legion hall, riverboats outfitted with video poker and blackjack machines on the Chesapeake, "Love Boat" cruise liners with casino gambling docking in Baltimore and off-track betting parlors throughout the state. Our new slogan would be: Maryland -- Take a Chance!

That's the sad state of affairs as government searches for new revenue to ease the pain of the present recession, and as other groups -- including organized crime -- seek to legalize gambling activities.

Some officials are eager to oblige. The House of Delegates last month gave overwhelming approval to a bill allowing slot machines for charitable and fraternal groups in Harford County. The House also whisked through an ominous bill sponsored by Del. Sheila Hixson of Prince George's County permitting wide-open cruise-ship casino gambling in Maryland waters -- even if the ship is tied up in Baltimore. When the bill hit the House floor, Judiciary Committee chairman John S. Arnick conveniently neglected to tell colleagues the State Police strongly opposed the bill because it would be an open invitation for organized crime.

Fortunately, neither proposal escaped from Senate committees. But that is no excuse for the irresponsible behavior of our state delegates.

Nor is the state Lottery Agency helping matters. Its marketing director is studying riverboat gambling for Maryland, echoing a bid by Iowa to reap millions through paddleboat gambling cruises.

In Iowa's case, though, the odds are stacked against gamblers. The most a patron can lose is $5 per bet and $200 per cruise. It is a tourist gimmick to re-create the nostalgic era of riverboat gambling along the Mississippi.

Maryland's riverboats would be more mundane -- and geared toward serious bettors. The gambling boats would aim at draining Marylanders of as much of their surplus cash as they bring aboard. And it would be openly encouraged by the state.

Meanwhile, race track operators continue to work behind the scenes to win legislative approval for off-track betting parlors, a move that could lead to far broader types of gambling.

Unless state leaders wake up soon, Maryland could gain the reputation as a haven for hard-core bettors, underworld elements and fast-buck artists. It might fatten state coffers, but it is hardly the kind of "economic development" normally envisioned. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ought to put an end to this gambling mania before it gets out of hand.

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