Slots lift tent flap for the camel Invitation: When a guberbatorial panel failed to frown on slot machines along with casinos, it may have initiated acceptance of casino gaming.


November 26, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

WHEN A gubernatorial commission voted recently to oppose casino gambling in Maryland, opponents of the dice, the wheel ** and the card breathed more easily. The forces of big league gaming had been turned back.


By taking no position on the deployment of slot machines at race tracks or off-track betting parlors, the commissioners offered a silent blessing for the most popular of gaming devices.

Suddenly, slots were on the verge of respectability: Some began to speak of them as economic development tools.

And why not? The commission did not reject casinos on moral grounds. Its 7-0 decision was based heavily on economic considerations: Would the casino payoff be canceled by the erosion of racing revenue, or the loss of jobs and business in adjacent restaurants, for example?

If these judgments had been positive, the commission's decision might have been different. The argument proceeds within the accepted notion that gambling is an industry, though it produces nothing -- unless you count the fleeting wild-side indulgence, profits for the house and revenue for the state.

Given the amount of gambling that occurs in Maryland already -- the lottery, the tip jars, horse racing, bingo and the rest of it -- the morality issue was resolved officially long ago.

"It would seem a little incongruous for a state that runs a keno game every five minutes at your local pizza parlor to oppose gambling all of a sudden on moral grounds," observes Joseph A. De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, who is the prime beneficiary of the commission's no-casino, up-with-slots decision.

If slots are permitted at the tracks, the revenue could be used to increase the racing stakes in Maryland, enticing Maryland horsemen to bypass the bigger purses in competing states -- such as Delaware, where track-based slots are already allowed.

But Mr. De Francis and others wonder if slots at the tracks would be a camel's nose under the tent flap.

Some say the machines produce 70 percent of a casino's revenue. If that is so, slots at tracks would resemble a much larger portion of the beast. If you had slots and horse racing under one roof, moreover, why not add roulette and blackjack?

The commission's action produced an updated form of an old State House question: "Casinos are dead, but are they dead dead?"

In lawmaking, there are degrees of death. Legislation killed in committee or on the floor of the respective houses may die temporarily, living again via parliamentary and political procedure. If the right legislators are carrying the equipment, almost anything can be resuscitated.

Slots won immediate adherents among leaders with the right stuff, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who said he would love to have them, possibly at off-track betting parlors in his home precincts of Western Maryland, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who said he could live with them at Laurel and Pimlico.

But Mr. Miller was cautious in his support.

"People are being drawn down a slippery slope from which there will be no retreat when we start talking about selective sites for gambling in Maryland," he said.

Even for Mr. De Francis, the slope looks slippery. Slots could hold off Delaware -- and invite Las Vegas.

"If slots come to the tracks and people see no increase in crime and no social problems associated with casinos, maybe they'll think having the casinos is not such a bad thing," he said, offering that side of the argument.

"On the other hand," he said, "if slots help us achieve more economic development, casinos could be less likely to happen."

So, the commission's permissive view of slots may have provided a way to shore up racing -- or a way to revive casinos. In the name of Maryland history and of economic development, the so-called gambling industry would win either way.

Mr. De Francis says racing interests will likely commission studies to help it decide which way to go.

If all else fails, they could roll the dice.


C. Fraser Smith is a Sun staff writer

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.