Sudden Legislative Awakenings KENO, NORPLANT

February 14, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

Have legislative bodies throughout the land taken a simultaneous tumble from the turnip wagon? Has every elected official in America been born again in the church of the strictly naive?

One is moved to ask because:

* Two years after it was introduced in city health clinics, Baltimore City Council members have discovered the presence of Norplant and they want to know what is going on!

* The U.S. Congress has learned that some wealthy Americans hire illegal aliens, pay them very low wages and don't pay their Social Security taxes.

* In Annapolis, the Maryland General Assembly is mighty upset about keno, the mesmerizing electronic gambling game now available in everything but the drive-in window at McDonald's. Suddenly, the legislature is very concerned about Big Casino Maryland!

Waking up is hard to do.

The keno plan was unveiled in all its splendor last September. Few legislators, if any, complained then about the threat posed to life, liberty and re-election.

Is there a pattern here? When do legislators go to work against the evils of gambling or the need for birth control or the payment of taxes?

The pattern, of course, is clear and not new.

"Tell me which way my people are marching, so I can get in front of them and lead," is the motto of some political leaders.

But why does this propensity seem so pronounced today? A few of the reasons: talk shows, the recession, political heat, Ross Perot, and all of the above.

The example provided by the General Assembly and keno is particularly apt since gambling is anything but new to Maryland. The lottery has been with us for 19 years. Horse racing is a part of the state's history, culture and economy.

The actual advent of keno was rapid, but lobbyists and legislators have been talking for some time about ways to expand gaming in Maryland. New technology, the increasing need for non-tax revenue and the interests of those who can fill the needs create an environment in which new gambling is welcome.

Keno is in Maryland because political leaders do not want to tell voters the really difficult truth: You want a free lunch. You want longer prison terms, better education and smooth highways but you don't want to pay for them.

So keno and the lottery pay. And if these sources are really a tax on the weak and the poor, never mind. In fact, some have !B pointed out that favoring these games is now the liberal position since without them, the governor has said literally, nursing home residents will be joining the homeless.

Keno, then, is probably here to stay. If there is enough public clamor, legislators will express shock at the game. But few are likely to vote to repeal it if the alternative is more cuts or more taxes. This reality is not at all new to legislators, though many of them probably did not know how much a part of life gambling at keno could become.

Even Del. Paul Weisengoff says keno caught him by surprise.

"And I'm known as the gambling guy," he says. Over the years, the Baltimore legislator has been a good friend of gambling, primarily horse racing, though he has supported the lottery and such enterprises as jai alai.

That he would oppose keno is not entirely surprising because racing interests have not been the game's biggest proponents -- fearing, as they do, a new competition for the bettor's dollar in Maryland.

But Mr. Weisengoff's opposition goes to the realm of gambling as social cancer. For him, the track or the lottery tickets are on the acceptable side of the boundary. Keno crosses that boundary.

"You can't have gambling in every corner grocery store and restaurant. Kids will take it for granted," he says.

In a sense, this is the heart of the objection to keno: It is pervasive; it is too available; it will become a fixture -- as acceptable and unexceptional as a television set; in that stealthy mode, it will more easily prey on the innocent and vulnerable and poor.

For Mr. Weisengoff, keno represents a difference not in degree but in kind.

A woman he knows went in one morning to a local store, bet $1 and won $2. She settled in, skipped work and lost $79 -- plus the lost wages.

"She was very angry at herself," he says.

He also heard of a man who played one day at Rosecroft Raceway, dropping $1,500 in less than hour -- by betting $300 a game for five games.

So, why is the opposition developing after the fact?

The answer is, all at once, simple and complex.

"No one focused on it," says Del. Gene Counihan, D-Montgomery. "Keno really snuck up on us."

Keno was advanced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, quite openly, but without a request or statutory requirement for legislative approval. He could do it on his own and he did -- though, again, he warned the General Assembly the game was coming.

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