If state leaders aren't careful, Maryland soon could turn into a haven for underworld influences. It could even rival Atlantic City for its mob connections and its no-holds-barred gambling emporiums.
Look at what is happening in the State House:
* The governor and the Senate president are backing an off-track betting bill that has virtually no restraints on the proliferation of thoroughbred and harness-track wagering throughout Maryland. One harness group has even drained its treasury to hire a high-profile lobbyist who also represents the company that runs the state's lottery computers.
* The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is sponsoring a bill to open a gambling casino in the city's vacant Power Plant -- smack in the middle of this state's biggest and most lucrative tourist locale -- the Inner Harbor.
* A measure permitting unfettered gambling on passenger ships navigating the Chesapeake Bay -- dubbed the "Love Boat bill" -- was approved by the House last week. Waiting in the wings: a bill permitting "riverboat" gambling.
* Two senators are promoting a bill to set up electronic slot machines in every store that has a lottery terminal.
Organized crime elements must be salivating. Wide-opening gambling seems to have growing support in the State House. It is viewed as "easy money" for the state at a time when Maryland's deficit exceeds $1.5 billion. The electronic slots bill, for instance, is expected to generate $80 million for the state in its first year -- though the largest payoff would go to the vendor picked to sell all these new slots to the lottery agency.
Big money is at stake. No wonder high-priced lobbyists are involved. What will become of the "Land of Pleasant Living" when Maryland is filled with OTB parlors, electronic slots, a Power Plant casino and gambling on passenger ships? The barriers preventing wider use of slot machines (now limited to Eastern Shore fraternal and charitable groups) will dissolve. Most counties could seek their own revenue streams from gambling. Casino nights and bingo games could proliferate.
Is this what elected leaders want? Is this the state's future for the 21st century? The situation is getting out of hand. Unless state lawmakers take a determined stand against expanded gambling, Maryland could wind up with the reputation not as the "Free State" but as the "Mob State."