Fiscal fix

December 30, 1991

Maryland's idea of the year might easily have been gambling. First came the vision of riverboat (actually, "bayboat") gambling on the Chesapeake. Then came the notions of making the state-run games high-tech and of setting up video lottery machines.

While there hasn't been much progress on any of these fronts, their very emergence shows how desperately the state, which gets a fiscal fix from the games, is itself addicted to gambling. But it would be a mistake to think the problem is limited to Annapolis. Baltimore city and county officials are hooked on gambling, too, and get their fix from the fees for licensing video poker and slot machines.

Of course, gambling is still illegal; these machines are "for amusement only." But players win money by winning points and then turning them in for cash from a bartender or store clerk. The payoff is under the table. Since it is the payoff itself that is illegal, city and county officials are, at least technically, absolved from responsibility. Ethics is another matter. Officials who conducted a 1985 raid in which 300 machines were confiscated found that one vending machine company alone collected $9 million in unreported profits on gambling. The city and county made out like bandits, too, through hefty license fees.

So clear is the connection between the machines and illegal gambling that Pennsylvania has banned them. So, too, Anne Arundel County. Harford, Howard and Carroll officials have kept the machines out with strict law enforcement and persuasion. We hope the public outrage over the state's attempts to expand its gambling operation will force the city and Baltimore County to finally ban these video poker and video slot machines, too.

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