How we became a gamblin' state

Frank A. DeFilippo

January 21, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IT WAS 30 years ago this month that the General Assembly took up legislation to outlaw the slot machines that were a "corrupting influence" in the four Southern Maryland counties where they were legal.

Today, the legislature is considering a Nevada-style gaming commission to regulate the proliferation of gambling in Maryland -- legal and illegal: the lottery, keno, horse racing, bingo, tip jars, off-track betting, casino nights, cruise-ship gaming, video poker, maybe even the illegal numbers.

The question about gambling seems not so much the variety of games that are becoming available to the betting public. More to the point, it's increasingly a matter of who gets greedy little hands on what share of the gambling dollars. It makes sense that as the number of games increases, the number of dollars doesn't; there's only so much green to go around.

The difference between 1963 and 1993 is that the state is now a major player, and it wants an ever-larger piece of the action. So do the race tracks.

The Democratic primary election for governor in 1962 was a three-cornered affair among the incumbent, J. Millard Tawes, the perennial populist marplot, George P. Mahoney, and a gentleman farmer from Southern Maryland, David Hume, son-in-law of the Daddy Warbucks of his day, industrialist Cyrus Eaton.

Hume ran a one-note campaign: Abolish slot machines. With the campaign assistance of the shiny-brights of the era (Baltimorean Walter Orlinsky and his merry band), Hume materialized from out of nowhere and accumulated 119,000 votes, even though he ran third.

That was enough to give him leverage in the State House. In exchange for his endorsement for governor in the general election, Hume forced Tawes to pledge that he would banish the one-armed bandits. Tawes grudgingly lived up to his promise.

And against the backdrop of a grand jury investigation into charges of bribery (never proven) and a platoon of slot machine lobbyists marauding the State House, the General Assembly voted to phase out slots from Anne Arundel, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties over three years.

But slots are back again, thank you, the result of a munificent campaign gesture from Gov. William Donald Schaefer. And they're doing a $30 million-a-year business, as near as anybody can tell. (They're unregulated.) The one-armed bandits found their way back into fraternal organization halls until former Atty. Gen. Stephen H. Sachs, Mr. Schaefer's rival for governor in 1986, ruled that they were operating illegally.

Then from his quiver of campaign promises in 1986, Mr. Schaefer produced a pledge to repatriate slots if he were elected. He was. They were. And now once again their presence is under investigation by another attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., presumptive candidate for governor.

So, too, is the keno contract under the U.S. attorney's microscope because the contract for its computer operation was handed without bidding to GTECH, the Rhode Island firm that also has the lottery contract and thus had the hardware already installed at many locations.

Remember, too, that only recently there were a half dozen indictments by the U.S. attorney relating to bingo in Anne Arundel County. The mob found those little old ladies from the sodalities and garden clubs a convenient way to sanitize their ill-gotten gains from gambling, racketeering, fencing, loan sharking and sham auto thefts for insurance. The money came upstream from Florida, through the rinse cycle on the books of Bingo World and returned to Florida freshly laundered and starched.

And it's one of those toothsome twists that commercial bingo was allowed to remain legal in Anne Arundel -- the only place outside of Las Vegas and several Indian nations -- as a trade-off for outlawing slots. Now, bingo halls, commercial and the theatrically non-profit, are about to become keno's biggest benefactors. They'll be offering electronic keno as well.

Enter, now, the race tracks (some of which also have caught the eye of the law). Track owners are constantly bellyaching about high costs and low profits. And they've been awarded major concessions by the pie-slicers in Annapolis. First, the state greatly reduced its share of the "take" so track owners could increase purses and attract better horses. Next, the state authorized off-track betting parlors where you can put your credit on the line for a $2 bet. The first one is about to open in Frederick.

Now the hot rumor along the rialto is that Joe DeFrancis, part-owner and operator of Pimlico and Laurel, wants the state to legalize video poker machines for race tracks only. The tracks can have keno, all right, but they'd get only the legally allowable share of the profits. With video poker they'd be like hogs in slop. They'd own the machines and get all the profits.

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