Rolling the Dice (by Video)

BARRY RASCOVAR

September 20, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Shhhhh. Don't talk too loudly about it. If we let people know what's about to transpire, it may never happen.

Maryland is jumping into the video casino business. The reward: $50 million to help bridge the budget gap now and $100 million (or more) next year.

It amounts to a mega-million-dollar bonanza for the state's lottery vendor. But it also could cripple nascent off-track betting efforts aimed at saving Maryland's $1 billion-dollar thoroughbred racing industry.

Even worse, it opens the way for high-tech casino activities in thousands of locations statewide.

All of this is taking place without public debate or formal hearings or even the approval of the state legislature. Simply by getting the lottery commission to approve bingo-like electronic games, the governor can bring video casino gambling to Maryland -- in the name of balancing the budget.

Yet the ramifications are enormous. Sadly, no one in Annapolis has given the matter in-depth study.

The rationale is simple: The state desperately needs more revenue to close its $500 million budget gap. No one has looked at the negative impact this could have on other lottery games (such as the instant, rub-off games that support the Oriole Park at Camden Yards bonds) or on the racing industry. There's been no public discussion.

No wonder the state's lottery vendor, GTECH, was willing to underbid its competitors by $15 million to win the lottery contract last year in a much-disputed bidding war. The company stands to reap a fortune -- and this time without having to be bothered with the formality of submitting a bid.

Already, the number of lottery outlets has grown to 2,400. Adding new gambling machines at outlets means big bucks for the vendor, not to mention the huge jump in wagers that affects its ultimate payoff. Besides, every bar and leisure-time business now will want a machine.

What officials have in mind is a giant expansion of legalized gambling here. They want video bingo machines in restaurants, bars, pizza parlors and bowling alleys to draw new gamblers into the web. The game, called "Quick Draw" -- is similar to the video keno (a form of bingo) you can play in Atlantic City. They're not traditional slot machines -- just first cousins.

There will be little reason to drive three hours to Atlantic City when you can visit your neighborhood tavern or convenience store, buy tickets on bingo combinations, watch the large-screen TV and find out in just five minutes if you've won. Then you get paid instantly.

Of course, most people won't win. They're the suckers in this bet. The odds are stacked against them.

Yet the state is desperate. The thought of untold millions pouring in is too enticing to resist -- even if it means promoting wider forms of gambling. What harm is there, anyway, in throwing your money away on bowling and bingo, pizza and bingo, booze and bingo, buffets and bingo? Besides, it's a great new "sport" to teach the kids!

Once the state ambles down this road, there's no turning back. Why not a room full of these video game terminals? Sure, it might look like a wing of Trump's Castle, but Maryland needs revenue.

Why not other video gambling games to entice the public? We have to erase that deficit, after all.

Why not lower the barriers even more and sanction video halls throughout the state? We could call them Las Vegas by the Bay.

And why bother with a trip to Laurel or Pimlico where you can only bet once every half-hour? At the state's own video terminals, you can bet 12 times an hour.

The horse-racing industry could be severely harmed. OTB was sold to the legislature as a way to prop up the tracks and save tens of thousands of workers who depend on this sport for their livelihood. But video gambling is so much simpler and so much more convenient.

It could also serve as a novel tourism magnet. The Convention Center could put in keno rooms to keep conventioneers happy. The National Aquarium might install machines for tourists waiting in line. And think of the appeal of video keno in Ocean City: The family that plays keno together, vacations in Ocean City together.

Henry David Thoreau once noted, "It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." But no one ever accused Maryland's leaders of steering the state through this recession by means of wise and carefully plotted programs. The opposite has been the case.

Turning to video casino games is indicative of the crisis in leadership that grips Annapolis today -- and the lack of a moral compass when it comes to gambling matters.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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