Dangerous Roll of the Dice

October 16, 1994

Shawnee Indians, backed by Donald Trump, want to turn a Western Maryland mountainside known as "Lovers Leap" into a casino. Lobbyists for other gambling interests are eager to float riverboat casinos along the Chesapeake and Potomac. Baltimore's long-vacant Power Plant is being eyed as the ideal location for a posh casino. Some racing officials want to place slot machines and video poker machines -- and a few roulette tables -- in race track grandstands.

A casino craze has hit Maryland.

All of a sudden, this state is viewed as the perfect spot for the expanding gambling industry. The thought of drawing all those affluent citizens from the metro Baltimore and Washington regions to the gaming tables makes casino operators salivate.

Rapid introduction of casinos in 24 states, especially along the Mississippi, has given gaming new acceptance. Politicians now are looking at gambling activities as just another form of entertainment -- with gross revenues last year of $31 billion. More trips were made to casinos in 1993 than to major league baseball games.

Legalized gambling of this type can solve so many nagging problems: wipe out that annual "structural" deficit; cut taxes; provide huge sums for impoverished Baltimore City; spur a new form of economic development and an expanded tourism industry. The financial lure for elected officials is enticing. So is the argument that Maryland has to make its move before neighboring states.

Both arguments fall into a dangerous trap: The negatives of casino gaming far outweigh the positives.

Gambling is a corrupt industry. Just this month, New Jersey indicted three individuals for a kickback scheme related to keno promotions, and Kentucky returned an indictment in a lottery fraud scam. In New Orleans this spring, 17 indictments were issued linking organized crime to the video poker industry. And Atlantic City casinos have had trouble with organized crime involvement since the day gaming tables were legalized by voters.

Will Maryland be viewed as a field of opportunity by crime families? Will the legislature open the doors to gambling without giving police and prosecutors the power to strictly enforce the law? The legislature's protective attitude toward other forms of gambling -- tip jars in Western Maryland, slot machines on the Eastern Shore and "charity" casinos in Prince George's County -- gives gambling interests the impression that riverboat and land-based casinos wouldn't be carefully policed.

A city panel has been set up to study the issue; a state panel is looking at the impact of casinos on the racing industry. But with legislative leaders giving casinos words of encouragement, momentum is already building to push a bill through the General Assembly come January. That would be a dangerous mistake. (( Casino gambling is a temptation Maryland should resist. It's the wrong kind of "economic development" for Maryland.

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