States are tempted by ready money from gaming, but some wonder whether the cost is too high Gambling on the future

November 06, 1994|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE

If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today from a 20-year slumber, he might easily conclude that legalized gambling had replaced disco, or maybe even baseball, as the national obsession.

There are now more than three dozen states with lotteries. There is pari-mutuel betting at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons, and 22 states now have casinos on Indian land, riverboats or in free-standing resorts.

At last count, new gambling proposals are on the ballot Tuesday in 16 states, including casino propositions in Florida, Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and Boston are contemplating casinos, and other states have gambling expansion under discussion.

Spurred by an A.S. Abell Foundation report and moves toward expanded wagering in nearby states, Maryland now has two public commissions considering how the competition might affect the state and its economy, especially its horse racing industry, and how best to respond.

Marylanders are no strangers to legalized gambling. More than $1.5 billion was wagered here on horses, lottery tickets and Keno during the most recent annual reporting periods. From that the state took $383 million for the general fund. More money goes into legal slot machines and tip jars.

But is state-authorized gambling expanding here and elsewhere because it delivers billions in new business, millions in new tax revenues, and thousands of new jobs, and because voters demand it? Or is it seeping into our lives because we and our elected officials, unwilling to raise taxes, are being gulled by the gaming industry's sales pitch and stampeded by fear that some nearby state might cash in sooner and bigger?

That is the heart of the debate now concluding in Florida, where voters this week will face a casino question placed on the ballot by gaming interests. The proposition would authorize the establishment of 12 freestanding casinos, 5 more on riverboats and 30 more at existing racetracks and jai alai frontons. Approval would make Florida's gambling industry second only to Nevada's, with unknown effects on the state's image or the rest of its $32 billion tourism industry.

The debate in Florida may hold lessons for Maryland. There has been recent talk of casinos in Baltimore, and on land eyed by Indian groups in Southern Maryland and Allegany County, although the latter venture has since collapsed.

Maryland's leadership has not yet committed to the casino idea, and both leading gubernatorial candidates say they are disinclined toward expanded gambling. But the heat of casino ++ proposals in competing states and cities is clearly being felt.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and outgoing Gov. William Donald Schaefer have each named public commissions to study the economic ramifications of casino gambling in Maryland or nearby.

Despite the failure of casino questions at the ballot in 1978 and 1986, the gaming interests have not been shy about trying again in Florida. The Proposition for Limited Casinos Inc., bankrolled by out-of-state gaming firms, local tracks and developers, spent $3 million to gather the 429,000 signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot.

FTC Casino interests are spending $16 million on what has become the most costly political campaign in Florida history. Anti-casino forces have spent $1 million.

"If we really want casinos in the state, we're going to have to put the money behind it," said Limited Casinos press secretary Danielle McBeth.

The case for casinos

Limited Casinos also hired The WEFA Group, a Philadelphia consultant, to make the economic case for casino gambling in Florida, and pitch it to voters.

WEFA's computer modeling said the 47 new casinos would gross $3.5 billion and attract 1.5 million new tourists in 1997. State, county and local government, WEFA concluded, would reap $720 million more in taxes in that year.

The casinos would create $4.7 billion in new construction over two years, and 67,000 new non-construction jobs paying an average annual wage of $26,000, the study found.

In case job-hungry voters didn't get that message, Limited Casinos held job fairs for casino employment that won't exist unless the proposition passes.

The pro-gambling interests also had WEFA analysts break down their predictions for the nine metropolitan areas that will see 85 percent of the new gambling activity.

As an example, they said, the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater area could expect to see 223,400 new visitors. There would be 4,300 new construction jobs in 1995. The casinos would generate 10,400 new jobs and $18 million more in local tax revenues by 1997, WEFA reported.

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