A bad business for government to get mixed up in

October 22, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- In the 1960s, as a young reporter assigned to Prince George's County, I used to drive from Upper Marlboro across the Patuxent River into Anne Arundel County a couple of times a week for what would now be called an ''entertainment experience'' -- lunch, and the chance to play the slot machines.

These had been legal in Anne Arundel, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert Counties since the 1940s, and although playing them was a novelty for me, it wasn't a big deal. There were quarter machines and nickel machines. I always played the nickel machines, investing perhaps 50 cents. If I won anything I'd bet that too, and after it was all gone I'd have lunch.

The sophisticated crowd I dined with, mostly other reporters and lawyers from the Prince George's state's attorney's office, laughed at me. They thought slot machines were for hayseeds and old women. If they were going to gamble they preferred to bet on sports, illegally. But as I didn't know how to do that, and had never heard of anyone accepting a five-cent bet on the Redskins, I thought the slots were neat.

Around that time momentum was building in reform circles to ban them. This seemed to me ridiculous until I got to the General Assembly and saw the sort of people who were working to keep them legal. That made a reformer out of me in a hurry.

Unsavory characters seemed to go with legal gambling the way flies go with carrion, and it sure wasn't any Mom and Pop industry the slots were supporting. In 1951 Estes Kefauver's ZTC Senate committee investigating organized crime had reported that Maryland had more slots than any other state, including Nevada.

A decade later the machines were taking in some $60 million a year, a lot of small change at that time, and Southern Maryland politicians loved them. But they were finally phased out in 1968, and I applauded, along with all the important editorial pages and good-government crusaders.

All this comes back to me vividly now as yet another gambling infatuation, with casinos, has Maryland politicians sweatily loosening their neckties. We've seen it all before, and now we're probably going to be seeing it all again.

Gambling in Maryland up to now has meant three things: slots, racing and the numbers rackets -- including both the illegal free-market version that used to flourish under the direction of certain Baltimore entrepreneurs, and the socialized version initiated by the state government in 1973. Each has been tarnished, the legal activities perhaps more than the illegal.

The state took over regulation of racetrack gambling in 1920, providing protection and legitimacy in exchange for a share of the take. Government control made authorized racing dates a valuable commodity. As George Callcott accurately notes in his fine history of Maryland from 1940 to 1980, ''much of the state's reputation for moral laxity, including the jailing of Governor

Marvin Mandel, stemmed ultimately from that.''

Racism and greed

By and large the politicians of the '60s and '70s loved racing, but hated the numbers game. Part of this animus was subtly and unintentionally racial; most of the operators, as well as most of the players, were black. (In many cities, organized crime -- the Mafia -- controlled the racket, but in Baltimore it was mostly local.) And part was rooted in greed. The pols wanted a share of the take.

The illegal lottery paid off each day on a three-digit number, usually the last three places of a larger figure -- the total amount bet at Pimlico, say, or the stock market volume -- published daily in the newspapers. The odds of picking the number are one in 1,000 (000 through 999), and winners usually collected around $800 for each dollar bet. That left a nice profit for the operators.

The state entered the numbers business in 1973, with the incredible explanation that its lottery profits would ''help the poor'' while providing bread and circuses for everyone else. The state lottery is predictably inefficient, with expenses and profit-taking siphoning off about half the volume. But of course the players aren't subject to arrest, as they would be if they played the competing game.

Now, 37 states have lotteries and 23 have authorized casinos. Revenues are softening, and some in Maryland want to join the 23. It's an atrocious idea, but that's not to say it won't happen.

The more governments regulate or sponsor gambling, history shows, the more they invite corruption. And it can't very well be banned outright, any more than whiskey or sex can. In a sensible world, governments would get out of the gambling business entirely and leave their citizens free to bet on numbers, raindrops or whatever they choose.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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