A Bad Gamble

December 13, 1992

It's about time someone with legal muscle has decided t take a hard look at the Schaefer administration's award of a $49 million no-bid contract to expand the state government's role as gambling baron. Perhaps U.S. Attorney Richard E. Bennett can get the public answers which thus far Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his cohorts have managed to keep hidden from view.

By describing the creation of an entirely new keno game as nothing more than an extension of an earlier lottery contract -- itself not much larger than the add-on -- the governor and other members of the Board of Public Works have derailed the safeguards of the competitive-bidding process. The transaction has an aroma that demands ventilation. Since Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. insists on taking a cramped view of his responsibilities as a statewide elected official, Maryland citizens must rely -- as they have in the past -- on the feds to shine light in Annapolis' dark corners.

Unfortunately, questions that arouse Mr. Bennett's interest are not the only thing wrong with this deal. Although the General Assembly's leadership was aware the governor was planning to plug his revenue drain in part with this electronic bingo game, the legislators really had no role in the deal.

State officials argue that last year's contract awarded to the politically well connected GTECH provided for the possible addition of keno. But it is by no means clear that it was widely understood the state might award a new project of this scope to last year's winner without any sort of public discussion or scrutiny. If this is not grist for Mr. Curran's mill, it certainly deserves a hard, skeptical look by the Senate Finance Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday.

And there is the question whether the state should be bridging the budget gap on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens. Make no mistake whose money is being siphoned off with this electronic carny gimmick, which will seduce patrons of bars and restaurants to plunk down another bet every five minutes almost around the clock. How many lottery machines are there in Roland Park and Ruxton? It's time the state government faced up to the socially unhealthy way it is avoiding a tax increase on those who can afford one by dangling a disguised levy in front of those who can't.

Necessary as Mr. Bennett's investigation is, the search for the smoking gun should not deter others from demanding answers to the equally troubling questions that don't involve federal law. Does the state's desperate financial plight justify its jettisoning vital checks and balances? Does balancing the budget justify any means to rake in revenues? Officials with a concern for more than next year's finances need to be asking that of themselves -- and sharing their answers with the public.

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