Good Gambling Loss

March 15, 1994

There's a good reason why the General Assembly has to review and pass upon certain local legislation for the counties: to act as a brake against parochial interests that would adversely affect the rest of the state and, sometimes, to protect the county from itself.

That reasoning has been amply justified in the case of the Harford County delegation's perennial request to allow slot machine gambling in the county. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee rightly defeated Harford's attempt for the fourth straight year to let in "one-armed bandits."

Eight other counties, all located on the Eastern Shore, have state permission for fraternal, non-profit organizations to use slot machines to raise money for themselves and for charity and public benefit.

The legislature seems persuaded that unregulated local gambling is not healthy for the state, and can lead to problems of accountability by the non-public groups that operate these slots for the entertainment of their members.

Harford's argument is that neighboring Cecil County has fraternal group slot machines that generate money for fire engines, hospitals and ballfields. That is just the sort of reasoning that the General Assembly, or at least the House of Delegates side, sees as a foot-in-the-door rationale that could lead to the spread of private-club slots to other counties.

In fact, most of the legislature seems intent on reining in the fraternal slots that have flourished on the Eastern Shore since Gov. William Donald Schaefer pushed for state approval in 1987. Mr. Schaefer now wants a state gambling commission to license and to tighten regulation of these devices and the casino, bingo and tip-jar gambling that occurs in other parts of Maryland.

The potential for abuse is well demonstrated by a state Gambling Task Force that found a lack of proper bookkeeping, contributions to individuals and donations to dubious "charities" by these Eastern Shore organizations. The task force did not find clear evidence of criminal misconduct in the $32 million-a-year operation.

Harford County does not need slot machine gambling for private clubs to fund civic works. These organizations can find other ways to raise money for legitimate charities. The county should not depend on their encouragement of gambling. One-armed bandits steal from everyone, not just those who drop a coin in the slot.

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