Gambling On Casinos

July 30, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

The verdict is in from Maryland's Eastern Shore: It will be a cold day in you-know-where before casinos are welcomed on that side of the bay.

Last week's four-hour hearing by the Tydings Commission turned into an anti-casino evening, with proud shoremen making it clear they don't want gambling in their midst.

Casino lobbyists expected as much. Sure, the VFWs and Moose lodges there have slots, but to church-going conservatives on the Shore, ''real'' gambling is an evil.

Especially in the self-styled ''family resort'' of Ocean City, locals are dead set against gambling. Of any kind. Period.

Yet the lobbyists know money could swing things their way. Sure, there's opposition from powerful Prince George's County volunteer firefighters running nightly ''charity'' casinos, from tavern owners in Western Maryland who operate ''tip jar'' games and fraternal groups on the Shore who run profitable slots. But none of them gets to vote on casino legalization.

Legislators vote, and that's where lobbyists have leverage. Trips to Nevada for some. Promises of campaign contributions. Pledges of lots of jobs for constituents. Millions for government coffers.

Listening to casino representatives, gaming is a panacea. The ,, income from these gambling dens will be gigantic. It will jet-propel the state economy, erase Annapolis' money woes, end unemployment, revive Baltimore City -- and possibly cure cancer.

Besides, modern casinos are really wholesome entertainment venues for all ages. Crime? Not at all. Casinos are heavily policed and scrutinized. Big public corporations run casinos. There's nothing to fear. Just look at the ''new'' Las Vegas.

If -- and it's a mighty big if -- casino lobbyists succeed in getting their way, there are a number of steps Maryland should take to limit the risk and ensure that the state reaps the right kinds of benefits from an influx of casinos.

Here are some imperatives:

* Casino tax money must be dedicated for a specific purpose. One big problem with the lottery is that the proceeds go into the amorphous general fund. Casino dough ought to be used for transportation projects.

First priority should be rapid rail and highway and bridge construction. Every part of the state could benefit. Areas with casinos get first dibs, though.

By using the money for transportation, the state avoids becoming overly dependent on casino cash. These are construction projects, not on-going expenditures. So if a casino goes belly-up -- as two have done in New Orleans -- the state simply cuts back on capital projects.

* Avoid full-fledged casinos. Try the slots-only approach first. Limit slots to controlled-access locales, i.e., race tracks. This could be the salvation for them, if handled properly. The extra income would boost purses -- the key to success.

* Should casinos be approved, restrict them to designated ''entertainment zones'' in populous areas. It is important that these be much more than simple casinos. That's the only way to create full economic benefit for Maryland.

* Learn a lesson from Oriole Park: Big sports and entertainment venues thrive best in densely populated settings where economic synergy can be maximized.

* Don't allow riverboat or barge-type casinos. They're less profitable than traditional casinos and create headaches (law enforcement, navigation dangers, rusting eyesores) that are best avoided. There is nothing romantic or quaint about a huge gambling vessel plying the bay.

* Wherever possible, preserve competition and avoid handing a regional monopoly to a single casino.

* Squeeze casinos for big upfront contributions and a large percentage of the profits. If Maryland is such an ideal location for casinos, that shouldn't bother the operators.

* Above all, establish a Gambling Control Commission with ties to the state police. This is the only way to prevent organized

crime infiltration, crack down on other criminal elements, guarantee the integrity of the gaming floors and make sure there is rigid enforcement.

These are huge and complex matters. To think that the Tydings Commission now holding hearings across the state can address them before submitting its report in December is naive.

To think the legislature can answer these far-reaching and multi-faceted questions in just 90 days early next year -- in the midst of a presidential primary campaign -- is to believe in the tooth fairy.

Still, if we eventually end up with casinos in the Free State, let's make sure we do it right.

H:

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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