Maryland Gaming Would Be a Riverboat Gamble

October 09, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas. -- For anyone who has not recently visited this "glitter gulch" of excesses in the desert, a trip to the revived gambling capital of the world is an eye-opener.

No more doldrums for the nation's fastest-growing metro area, whose population is rapidly approaching 1 million. There's a new casino boom in full flower. Megahotels, all with megacasinos, are the rage. Older establishments are expanding by leaps and bounds. New edifices are gobbling up entire city blocks with monster complexes.

Las Vegas is now a "family entertainment" center. MGM Grand, with a mind-boggling 5,000 rooms, has a Wizard of Oz theme. Excalibur has a Knights of the Round Table theme. Luxor has an Egyptian pyramids theme. Treasure Island has its flamboyant pirates' battle outside the drawbridge each night. Mirage has its exploding volcano and its white tigers.

Central to this strategy, though, is the lure of games of chance. The gamble by Vegas casino magnates seems to be paying off. Most hotels are booked up. The city throbs with New York-style )) traffic jams and throngs of pedestrians. It has low-brow and high-brow sections, strip joints and Cirque du Soleil. It is an entertainment hub unmatched in this country.

But should Maryland embrace Las Vegas' approach? Should this state's political leaders open their arms and warmly embrace the casino industry?

Maryland's affluent lobbyists already know the answer. They are flocking to sign up casino clients. There will be a stampede of lobbyists trying to twist arms and entice legislators to legalize casino gambling in this state.

Already, the Maryland Gaming Association Inc. has been formed by lobbyists and has made its pitch to casino honchos in Las Vegas. They want to legalize "riverboat" gambling. The group has budgeted $463,000 to win approval at the General Assembly session in January. Gaming companies -- many who eye land-based casinos downtown and in other high-density areas -- are hiring lobbyists, too. It is an incredible bonanza for lobbyists such as Gerard Evans, Edward Wayson (owner of Wayson's Bingo in Anne Arundel County) and Marvin Mandel.

And so far, it looks like a field day for gambling proponents. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, who hails from the land of the legalized "tip jar," is cooing about Maryland's prime location for games of chance. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller of Prince George's County, where a $250 million "charity" casino operation flourishes, has had encouraging words, too.

Here's the pitch: Other states are rushing to make casinos legal. Delaware and West Virginia have legalized slot machines at race tracks. The District of Columbia will vote in November on an initiative (defeated twice before) to legalize gambling on riverboats and barges tied to piers. If Maryland doesn't get in on the action, it could be left behind.

The big incentive, though, is the potential revenue windfall for the state government and for localities. It could be more than enough to solve the state's money woes. Legalize casinos, these lobbyists say, and that fiscal noose will be permanently removed.

What they don't say is that casinos would obliterate Maryland's $1 billion horse-racing industry. Race tracks could become glorified casino operations with live horses romping around the track a few times a day to keep up appearances. Lottery revenues would be devastated. Organized crime would surface, as it did in Atlantic City. Prostitution would rise sharply, as would violent crimes.

And no one has yet mentioned how the state could possibly mount the kind of regulatory effort that would be needed to police such a massive enterprise effectively.

Initially, the focus of lobbyists is on ''riverboat'' gambling. In truth, most are sham riverboats that would be tied to docks along the Chesapeake and tributaries. Look for big operations in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Cambridge, Southern Maryland and Port Deposit. Heavyweight casino companies will compete for prime locations. Soon the casinos will spill over onto land near the docks. Western Maryland locales and others removed from the bay will demand equal treatment.

Is that the kind of economic development that will pay off in the long term for Maryland?

Both candidates for governor, Ellen Sauerbrey and Parris Glendening, have their doubts. Neither is jumping on the riverboat gambling bandwagon (though Mr. Glendening's failure

to halt charity casinos in his home county has emboldened lobbyists). For one thing, destruction of the racing industry is not something any governor wants on his or her watch. Making up for lost lottery revenues in the initial years could cause massive headaches for the next governor.

Then there's the quality-of-life question. Is a state with rampant gambling fever and a pliant legislature the kind of place where a corporation wants to locate a plant? Is it the kind of state where executives want to raise their families?

There are alarming indications that lobbyists, intoxicated by the vast sums being dangled by casino interests, will mount a full-court-press to legalize riverboat gambling. If the legislature rolls over and acquiesces, it will be a clear signal that any well-funded industry can coerce Maryland's lawmakers to see things its way -- if the price is right. Maryland's lobbyists, and the gambling interests, will be in command.

Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

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