Maryland's Gambling Addiction

March 24, 1994

Maryland is getting hooked on gambling. This state's addiction to games of chance is becoming so ingrained that it's scary. Off-track betting parlors springing up. Lotto machines in over 1,000 locations. Casino gambling throughout Prince George's County. Tip jars in Western Maryland. Slots on the Eastern Shore. And the ubiquitous -- and usually illegal -- electronic poker machines in taverns and food stores.

Yet senators and delegates in Annapolis are eager to close their eyes to the possible corruption and misdeeds taking place. They don't want to upset their local sheriffs or agitate local charitable groups -- especially in an election year. But a statewide gambling commission is desperately needed. It can't wait. Not if lawmakers care about this state's integrity.

There's no better example of the dangers than what's been happening in Prince George's County. Close to $20 million a year is poured into ostensible "charitable" casinos. Skimming of proceeds is widely suspected. Sometimes the charities see precious little of the gambling revenue. At one fire house in Bladensburg, some $3.3 million was gobbled up in "overhead" expenses in 1992; what was left for charity amounted to only 18 percent of the take.

The law says employees of these casinos must be volunteers. Yet in Prince George's, the powerful interests that put on these functions routinely hire professional dealers, croupiers and pit bosses. Outside interests are the true beneficiaries of these "charity" games.

What's the local political establishment's reaction? It seeks to legalize paying casino workers compensation. And -- sniff, sniff! -- advocates say that unless this is permitted, charitable games can't survive (though in other subdivisions casino nights thrive with volunteers).

This bill should be killed, if not by toothless delegates then by more courageous state senators. At the same time, the House should stand up in support of the governor's proposal to create a statewide oversight commission on gambling.

Non-commercial bingo, raffles and paddlewheels would be exempt from the commission's purview, as would horse racing and the lottery -- which are already under state supervision. The commission could investigate complaints, require uniform reporting of gambling proceeds and expenditures and look into where the money is going.

Out-of-control gambling poses a serious threat in Maryland. Will lawmakers knuckle under to the special interests who like it that way? Or will they have the fortitude to set up an oversight panel to root out the illegalities in these gambling ventures before it is too late?

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