Pending bills propose betting ventures

BIG GAMBLE FOR MARYLAND?

February 26, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris | Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Imagine a casino at the Inner Harbor, gambling boats on the Chesapeake Bay, slot machines in every veterans' hall, off-track betting parlors dotting the state and video poker terminals in every corner bar.

Maryland could indeed become a mini-Nevada if the General Assembly approves two dozen pending proposals for expanded gambling. The ideas may entice gamblers, but they turn off the state police, who fear that organized crime might grab a piece of the pie.

While the legislature is likely to approve few, if any, of the gambling proposals, the sheer volume of bills, combined with the state's perilous finances, suggest that expanded betting may be part of Maryland's future.

"State-sponsored gambling will not solve our fiscal problems, but it's politically more attractive than higher taxes," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery.

The proposal given the best chance of passing is off-track betting, which would provide only a trickle of money to the state directly but could be a bonanza for the racing industry.

While other gambling proposals abound, it's hard to find enthusiastic supporters. Everyone, it seems, got the idea for more gambling from someone else.

Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's, said he only co-sponsored a bill authorizing state video lottery terminals as a favor to fellow Sen. Larry Young, D-Baltimore. Senator Young said he only floated the idea after it was suggested by his employer, Willie Runyon, owner of a Baltimore ambulance company.

"I am not a big fan of gambling," Mr. Young said. "But when you are looking for revenues and an idea comes to you, I said I'll float it."

Mr. Runyon did not return a reporter's phone call.

Video lottery machines set up in bars and restaurants could bring the state more than $100 million a year, proponents say. The Maryland Lottery Agency, while intrigued by the potential revenue, opposes the idea, at least for now.

"We feel the Maryland lottery currently offers a wide range of opportunities, which appears to provide an adequate source of funds for the general fund," said lottery spokesman Carroll H. Hynson.

In a similar manner, Del. Louis L. DePazzo introduced a bill that would allow fraternal clubs in Baltimore County to set up slot machines, with half of the proceeds going to charity.

"It was at the request of the service clubs," said Mr. DePazzo, D-Baltimore County. "I have mixed emotions. You know there's going to be a time when we get the bill for all this gambling."

Anne Arundel and Harford counties also want permission for slot machines, which are now legal only on the Eastern Shore. And Charles County veterans' groups asked Sen. James C. Simpson to introduce a slot machine bill for them.

"They have casino nights now. I said you can have one or the other, that's enough," Mr. Simpson said. "It's getting out of hand."

Off-track betting, with the blessing of the legislature's presiding officers and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, finally appears to have a chance, after several years of debate. The biggest question is how big a tax bite the legislature will impose.

The least likely idea comes from Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, who wants the lottery agency to set up a casino in the defunct Power Plant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with the city and state splitting the profits.

"It could solve a big part of the city's tax problems," Mr. Arnick said. "That money is going off to Atlantic City."

"But," he concedes, "its time is not here."

Why stop at casinos on land? Delegate Hixson envisions floating casinos on Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

She has introduced bills allowing gambling on riverboats and international cruise ships. "It will bring more people into gambling than gamble today," she boasted.

The cruise ship bill, which supporters say would lure a half dozen ships to the port of Baltimore, would permit gambling from the Francis Scott Key Bridge to the Virginia portion of the bay.

The House passed similar legislation last year, but a Senate committee killed it after members expressed fears it would attract organized crime.

State police and the Schaefer administration continue to oppose both floating casino bills for exactly that reason. They say that type of gambling would attract criminals, cheats and, in the case of cruise ships, money launderers.

"I don't see it that way," Ms. Hixson responded. "I don't see Maryland as a Mafia state."

Maryland has an established horse racing industry, she said, and no one is particularly worried about organized crime infiltrating the tracks.

Lobbyists for the racing industry, a powerful force in Annapolis, are fighting the floating casinos. Such casinos would hurt racing and the huge Maryland horse industry, while helping people who may take their profits elsewhere, they say.

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