Maryland Takes a Gamble (and Another)

BARRY RASCOVAR

October 03, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

What has William Donald Schaefer wrought? Will he be remembered as "the Gambling Governor"?

The man who brought slot machines back to Maryland? Who gave us off-track betting parlors, Lotto, Keno, El Gordo, lottery vending machines? Will his final present to the state be riverboat gambling and Indian casinos?

Late in his final term as governor, Mr. Schaefer is starting to realize that once you let gambling get a foot in the door, it is nearly impossible to ever close that door again.

He also finds himself in the contradictory position of trying to boost one kind of government-sanctioned gambling while seeking to crack down on other forms of gambling.

Two factors are at work here: Mr. Schaefer's eagerness to do good deeds for friendly citizens and his desire to come up with more money on which to complete some of his ambitious programs.

The first factor is best illustrated by the fight over slot machines. Non-profit groups on the Eastern Shore, such as the Elks, Moose and veterans groups, urged Mr. Schaefer -- then a candidate for governor -- to let them bring back a handful of slot machines. The idea was that money raised would flow back into the community.

Candidate Schaefer bought the idea. It was a painless way to help Shore communities.

He signed the measure in 1987. Since then, Eastern Shore officials and non-profit leaders "broke faith with me," according to the governor. The situation is out of control.

There is virtually no policing of the slots revenue; slot machines are entering the state and then disappearing; there is an on-going probe of Shore sheriffs and their close ties to slots operators.

A total of $32 million in slots activity was reported last year; no one knows how much additional money is unaccounted for. And half of the reported profits are being pumped back into the sponsoring organizations, making them fat and happy.

But don't try to make these groups responsible for their actions. They respond angrily to attempts to police their activities. Their resident defender in Annapolis, Sen. Walter Baker, has the power to block any reform legislation. He still says there's no hanky-panky going on, though State Police know otherwise.

The governor now recognizes there is, indeed, plenty of mischief and even some criminality, but he is powerless to do anything about it.

The same holds true in Prince George's County, where casino-night gambling for charity has become big business, so big that politicians cower at the thought of reining in the non-profit groups. Skimming of profits is widespread, few controls exist, profits are being diverted into non-charitable purchases, and professional gambling operators are active in these $20-million-a-year enterprises.

It's a mess, but state government's sanctioning of other forms of gambling makes it difficult to get tough in Prince George's County. (The situation in that jurisdiction is not really Mr. Schaefer's doing; it could, though, become a campaign headache for P.G. County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who has failed to clamp down on the casino gambling and is a leading candidate for governor.)

While bemoaning the abuses of gambling cropping up in Maryland, Mr. Schaefer simultaneously has urged lottery officials improve sales of their lagging Keno game. He needs the extra money to boost the size of his final budget. That also could lead to his embracing a bill legalizing riverboat casino gambling.

Not far behind is the Indian casino gambling issue.

Mr. Schaefer clearly adores big economic development projects, and the group representing this state's Piscataway Indians in Southern Maryland are promising a giant development project -- a huge casino, race track, hotel, amusement park and marina complex that could employ 30,000 people. It's just the kind of BIG project Mr. Schaefer loves. All he's got to do is say "yes" to the Piscataway casino.

Don't count on it. Mr. Schaefer does not want to be remembered chiefly as the governor who turned gambling loose throughout Maryland.

But what about the next governor? While Mr. Glendening says he's adamantly opposed to casino gambling of this sort (as opposed to the casinos already operating in his own county now), other potential governors aren't flat-out against the idea, not when it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new state tax revenues and jobs.

The gambling genie is out of the bottle. Sadly, state and local politicians don't have the gumption or even the desire to put the cork back in place.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics and government appears here each week.

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