Gambling on gambling

February 16, 1993

Alarm bells should be ringing in Annapolis. Why would someone request that 1,500 slot machines be shipped from Nevada -- where such gambling is legal -- to Maryland, where only 52 fraternal clubs on the Eastern Shore are allowed to have a maximum of 260 one-armed bandits? Something's going on beneath the surface that ought to alert legislators and the governor to the dangers of opening Maryland to the corrupting influence of gambling.

The attempted slots shipment -- barred by Nevada gambling officials -- has since led the state attorney general's office here to conduct a grand jury probe of the Shore slots, where regulation is minimal and the potential for misbehavior is great. But when the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was asked to rein-in this gambling and let the State Police oversee slots activity, Eastern Shore lawmakers quashed the proposal. They'd rather pretend there are no problems with slots play.

No wonder other legislators are reluctant to kill the Schaefer administration's keno game, an addictive form of wagering available every five minutes, 18 hours a day at hundreds of sites. They don't want to face up to the harsh reality that revenue from government-sanctioned gambling may come with dangerous strings attached.

It's not just keno that threatens Maryland. Look at Prince George's County, where County Executive Parris Glendening is so alarmed at out-of-control charity casino nights he warns that Prince George's is in danger of becoming "a center for illegal gambling in the mid-Atlantic states."

"We are no longer talking about bingo in church basements," Mr. Glendening said. "We are talking about a multi-million-dollar industry that has as much potential for evil as it does for good."

In neighboring Anne Arundel County, the concern is over for-profit bingo halls. One big operation has already been linked to organized crime. In Western Maryland, the proliferation of unregulated "tip jars" worries law-enforcement officials. And Worcester County officials are so concerned about taverns enticing big keno betting by plying customers with cheap drinks that they acted to ban the practice.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell is sponsoring legislation to regulate all forms of gambling not currently under state purview. His colleagues had better jump on the band wagon. The other alternative -- doing nothing -- will only encourage nefarious elements to view Maryland as a state friendly to gambling of all sorts. That's the kind of economic development we don't need.

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