Are casinos dead in Maryland? Don't believe it: Despite commission rejection, focus now shifts to slots at race tracks.

November 19, 1995

BY A 7-0 VOTE, the Tydings commission last week rejected the notion of casinos for Maryland. But that has hardly slowed down the lobbyists looking for a way to expand gambling here.

As we have noted before, there's virtually no interest in casinos ,, among the general populace or among elected officials. Thus, the 7-0 commission vote came as no surprise. More surprising was the immediate push among legislative leaders to endorse a first step toward casinos: slot machines at the state's race tracks.

First the House speaker and then the Senate president chimed in about the urgent need to bolster the horse-racing industry by adding slots parlors to the tracks. The fear is that a pending slots emporium at Delaware Park's thoroughbred track will draw betting dollars and good horses away from Pimlico and Laurel.

But why the panic? Delaware's slots experiment won't get off the ground till next month at the earliest. We will not know till next year the full impact on Pimlico and Laurel. Even more, state officials have yet to examine other avenues for assisting local racing.

The danger is that once Maryland permits slots at the tracks, it could create unstoppable momentum for more gambling elsewhere. Already, House Speaker Casper Taylor is demanding combination off-track bettor parlor and slots building in Western Maryland as his quid pro quo for race-track slots. Once that's in place, bringing in a casino isn't hard to imagine.

Mr. Taylor and others ought to analyze the findings of the Tydings commission, which discovered voluminous reasons to reject casinos and hardly any reasons to support them. As for slots at the tracks, that decision can be reached only after closely considering far-ranging ramifications of such a move. What about the impact on neighborhoods near the tracks? What about the costly rise in the number of addicted gamblers? Will there be increased crime? Will the advent of slots ultimately spell the downfall of racing and the rise of casinos as a replacement industry at these sites?

Maryland's thoroughbred tracks and farms enjoyed a banner year in 1994; 1995 has been nearly as successful. There is no way of knowing if Delaware Park's 715 slot machines will hurt business at Maryland tracks in 1996. At this point, it is merely a fear among racing officials.

Maryland should not rush into a decision it may later regret. The proper step for lawmakers and the governor is to explore all options to fortify the racing industry, which has been a Maryland tradition for 200 years. This state cannot let a $1 billion-a-year industry wither.

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