Baker's Big Gamble

April 08, 1994

Once again, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is confronted with an uncomfortable decision: Whether to exert his considerable influence to persuade a stubborn committee chairman to let committee members vote on a bill the chairman personally despises.

It is no surprise the reluctant chairman is Sen. Walter Baker, whose notion of a democratic legislature leaves something to be desired: What Mr. Baker likes is handled with dispatch and diligence; what he opposes is discarded without a vote. Now he wants to put the governor's gambling commission in the Baker deep-freeze. Even a personal appeal yesterday from the governor and House leaders left him unmoved. He stubbornly refuses to let democracy rule in his own committee.

Yet Maryland badly needs a panel to oversee and impose some discipline on this state's wide-open gambling ventures. As it is now, tip jars in Western Maryland are totally unregulated; 230 slot machines on the Eastern Shore are so loosely regulated as to be laughable, and 20 gambling casinos in Prince George's County have fended off local efforts to regulate their activities closely. It is a situation tailor-made for unsavory characters, under-the-table payoffs and widespread irregularities.

That's why a gambling regulator makes sense. Both the state police and the attorney general have investigated the situation on the Eastern Shore and found troubling indications of hanky-panky with the $20 million generated from slot machines since 1988. As for the situation in Prince George's County, it is downright alarming: The $16 million a year industry is booming, with virtually no regulatory body making sure things are on the up-and-up.

In fact, matters could get worse in Prince George's, unless the county's senators stop a bill to let casino employees accept tips and compensation. The pretext of hiring only "volunteers," as the law allows, would be shattered. Big-time gambling in that county would gain ground.

Without a commission, other forms of gambling would spring up for the ostensible purpose of helping civic or charitable groups. There will be no controls on these operations. It is a dangerous situation that demands action from legislators. The House has already endorsed, by a whopping margin, a state commission. What will Mr. Miller do? He owes it to the state, and to his Senate colleagues, to bring this measure to a vote -- with or without Mr. Baker's consent. If we're going to have gambling in this state, these activities must be tightly regulated. Otherwise, the potential for corruption could become reality.

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