The 'Bet While You Booze' State

January 17, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

This state is sure getting a good reputation around the nation. Look at what syndicated columnist William Safire wrote last week in the New York Times and in hundreds of other newspapers:

"Here in the Democratic-dominated state of Maryland, Gov. William ('Bet While You Booze') Donald Schaefer has been visiting restaurants with bars to tout his solution to budget-balancing: keno, a numbers game under state auspices that entices patrons to stare at a television screen above the bar and try their luck.

"The governor is putting the power and prestige of his office behind the exploitation of a human weakness. It raises money for worthy purposes, he maintains, firmly placing the ends before the means -- and besides, people gamble anyway.

"On that theory, why not State of Maryland Official Brothels? People patronize prostitutes anyway, so why not cut out the middleman and have the state run the enterprise?"

Mr. Safire has it wrong on one count: The next state enterprise won't be legalized prostitution but video poker machines.

The really big payday for GTECH and other gambling vendors could lie in electronic slot machines that can play video poker or any number of card games or games of chance. What's happening in Massachusetts could well be coming this way.

In Massachusetts, keno is expected to be launched this year; video poker could follow shortly thereafter. While keno may mean several thousand new computer terminals and screens, the start of video poker could lead to -- get ready now -- 39,000 computerized gambling machines in that state, producing revenue of $1 billion.

Given the attitude of Governor Schaefer and top legislative leaders toward keno -- "we need the money" -- think what they'll say when lobbyists start pushing for video poker.

Yet do Marylanders crave a never-ending variety of games of chance sanctioned and promoted by the state? Apparently not. It's just that the political leaders in Annapolis are taking a citizens-be-damned approach.

According to a poll conducted by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore, Marylanders object to keno as a revenue-raising device by a margin of nearly 2-1; 46 percent said it is not the right way to raise public funds, 24 percent said it was OK, 30 percent had no opinion.

Twenty-four percent is not exactly an overwhelming show of public confidence in the government's latest gambling venture.

But then state leaders are more interested in hearing the inflated revenue numbers being promoted by the lottery agency about keno's success. Remember, this is the same agency that brought us the el Gordo $5-ticket, $10-million prize lottery -- a game that turned into an unmitigated disaster. Still, the agency persists in spreading the fiction that el Gordo actually netted the state $73,000 in profits -- a far cry from the $11 million in profits initially projected.

But upon closer examination, it turns out el Gordo was el Loser for state taxpayers: the government actually lost over $2 million. There wasn't even enough money left over to pay all the prize winners: millions had to be siphoned out of the Unclaimed Prize Fund from other lottery games.

But it's not just the lottery agency. Gambling is spreading elsewhere in Maryland. The state's race track owners are close to opening the first off-track betting parlor -- at a well-known family restaurant in Frederick County. Think of the possibilities: Bring your kids to Peter Pan and teach them how to play the daily double, how to read the Racing Form and how to place your bets. Sounds like a wholesome family-style outing for a Sunday afternoon, perhaps after a visit to church.

Over on the Eastern Shore (where OTB sites are also planned), fraternal lodges and other non-profit groups are pumping out millions in profits from legal slot machines. There is virtually no regulation of these machines, a fact that now has prompted a grand jury investigation. Where's all the money going? Is it all being accounted for properly? Is something fishy going on?

In Frederick County, the commissioners are considering "tip jars" for bars and taverns and restaurants. At the Port of Baltimore, state officials are pushing for casino gambling on cruise liners while the big ships steam up the Chesapeake Bay. And some state legislators want to sanction casino gambling on Marylander rivers, too.

Do you get the impression gambling is spinning out of control here in Maryland? That could, indeed, be the case. With top political leaders encouraging these activities, there seems virtually no impediment in the State House to more and more games of chance.

F: Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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