Let casinos boost budget, lobbyists say Memo to lawmakers touts fiscal benefits for social programs

Unusual approach

Appeal to legislators comes after criticism in public hearings

October 05, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

After months on the political defensive, casino lobbyists have taken the unusual step of pleading their case in a 14-page memo sent to every Maryland legislator.

Using the state's tightening financial situation as leverage, the memo argues, in part, that lawmakers should embrace casinos to help save social programs and balance the Maryland budget.

Casino taxes -- which typically yield tens of millions of dollars for state governments -- would help legislators continue to provide services while fulfilling their promise of an income tax cut next year, the memo implies.

"Given the financial inability of the state to adequately fund some very worthwhile and necessary social programs . . . can it be morally justified to reject the tremendous income that a properly regulated gaming industry could make available?" it asks.

The missive was sent last month by two veteran lobbyists, James J. Doyle Jr., who represents Nevada-based Primadonna Resorts, and George Manis, who represents Harrah's Entertainment of Memphis, Tenn. The two are among more than a half dozen lobbyists retained by casino companies to represent their interests in Annapolis.

The memo went out in the wake of public hearings in which opponents pummeled casinos, portraying them as a magnet for organized crime that would destroy local business and weak-willed citizens.

Mr. Doyle said he sent it to Maryland's 188 lawmakers because he sensed the industry was losing the debate to emotional appeals.

"The distribution of this memo is an unusual action, but circumstances require that we do so," Mr. Doyle wrote. Anti-casino forces "are seeking premature legislator commitments in opposition on the strength of anecdotal stories, apocryphal incidents and emotional biases."

The memo is noteworthy for its length as well as its content. Lobbyists frequently distribute summary sheets on issues during the legislative session, but lawmakers interviewed yesterday said they had never before received such a lengthy, point-by-point analysis.

Specifically, the memo argues that casino revenue could help fund programs for the poor and homeless at a time when money is tight. It cites the recent abolition of the $35 million Disability Assistance Loan Program, which had paid stipends of $157 a month to 21,000 unemployed Marylanders.

"I can't imagine turning your back on new money that might alleviate [social problems] a little bit because of paranoia that mobsters in homburg hats are going to come in and take over," said Mr. Doyle in an interview. "They're not even in this business anymore."

VTC Unmentioned in the memo, but weighing on legislators' minds, are the pending federal cuts in aid to Maryland. State fiscal analysts predict Maryland will lose $82 million in federal money this fiscal year.

Whether the memo will sway any lawmakers is hard to say. Of five legislators interviewed yesterday, only two said they had read it. One, Del. D. Bruce Poole of Western Maryland, was impressed.

Mr. Poole said he thought the memo elevated the dialogue on the casino issue, which is expected to be at the forefront of the General Assembly session that begins in January.

"I thought it was very well written, well reasoned," said Delegate Poole, a Washington County Democrat, who said he is leaning against casinos. "Usually, these big-money issues are lobbied on junk mail, not legal briefs."

Mr. Poole said he thought the argument of using casino tax dollars to stave off potential budget cuts would be a central one. "I think the memo is saying, 'This may well be a necessary evil,'" Mr. Poole said. "You may not like it, but you have no choice."

While two lobbyists joined forces to send the memo, their effort also shows that pro-gambling interests, for the most part, are not working together. Other casino lobbyists interviewed yesterday said they had not seen the memo.

"Everybody's doing their own thing," said lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, who represents Harveys Casino Resorts of Nevada. "There just isn't a unified voice on the issue."

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