The Casino Juggernaut Rolls Craps

September 10, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

It's time to bring out the bugle and sound ''Taps.'' Or to put it in language their supporters understand, casino owners have rolled craps, they've watched the blackjack dealer draw 21 and their situation at the poker table is so precarious they would be wise to fold their hands and walk away.

Casinos aren't coming to Maryland. Not now or anytime soon. Public sentiment is so strongly against this proposed expansion of legalized gambling that only a fool would try to buck the trend. Hearings by a special commission have been heavily one-sided: Few in the community say good things about casinos. It's the casino owners and their paid lobbyists against everyone else.

That's been the trouble from the start. There was never any groundswell of enthusiasm for making Maryland a gambling mecca. No city or county wanted the dubious honor. No politician wanted to be tagged as the casinos' promoter.

From the start, it has been a crass game of greed. Casinos and their lobbyists have taken the cynical view that money talks in Annapolis, that if enough politicians can be wined and dined or promised large campaign contributions and thousands of jobs at the casinos for their constituents, legalization is inevitable. Especially if casinos promise the state and localities hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue at a time when funds are tight and getting tighter.

It didn't work. Politicians who had first been intrigued by the idea backed away when they realized there was widespread public disenchantment. And the state's fiscal picture has brightened since the recession years, thus weakening the need for casino revenue.

In fact, it appears the casino owners have been taken for a ride -- by some slick lobbyists. The casinos-for-Maryland drive was a lobbyists' creation from the start. It was thelobbyists who persuaded casino owners that Maryland was vulnerable. After all, casinos offered jobs to a state suffering through years of job loss and money to governments desperate for more cash.

All the casino owners needed to do was pay big bucks to lobbyists with the savvy and contacts to grease the squeaky legislative wheel and persuade the governor to go along.

It wasn't that simple, as it turned out. Lobbyists had oversold their ability to control the legislature. And without any grass-roots support, casino owners found themselves quickly outnumbered by the diverse citizen groups and moralists opposed to more gambling.

Now the governor and House speaker are making it clear they aren't going to jump aboard any casino bandwagon. They can sense the public moving in the other way.

The remaining two public hearings are likely to reveal more resistance from community groups in Western Maryland and in Baltimore. After that, the outcome of the commission's deliberations won't be much of a surprise -- thumbs down on casinos. That would allow the governor and legislative leaders to give the matter a polite but firm burial before the 1996 General Assembly starts in January.

There's just one area where gambling might be expanded -- at the race tracks. Maryland's horse-racing industry is lame. Its patrons are aging. Attendance is down. Wagering at the tracks is down. The quality of racing is not what it used to be. And the threat of 1,000 slot and video-poker machines at nearby Delaware Park off Interstate 95 is a worry.

If Delaware's electronic gambling ever gets off the ground, Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft could see a precipitous drop in revenues. That might force the state's hand to save the racing industry. But as long as this new gaming is restricted to existing tracks where legalized betting is already strictly controlled and access is limited, casinos won't have much of a foot in the door.

There are lessons to be learned from the experience of casino owners in Maryland. One, don't be conned by the braggadocio of lobbyists. Two, don't come into a state as outsiders and expect a warm embrace. Three, don't think you can build a persuasive case without first spending years laying the groundwork. And four, don't ever enter the political arena without broad public support for your cause.

The casino push is failing for all the right reasons. There is hope yet for common sense and responsible representation in Annapolis.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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