Jingle-jingle, go the slots pant-pant, go the politicians

March 24, 1996|By BARRY RASCOVAR

A DRIVE UP Interstate 95 to Delaware Park is an eye-opener. The parking lot is jammed with cars. So is the $15 million slot-machine parlor. Wall-to-wall machines. Every one is taken. Makeshift off-track betting rooms have been set up throughout other parts of the grandstand.

Delaware Park is making millions from these slots without benefit of a live thoroughbred race this year. It's as though real racing never existed there.

These slots players wouldn't pause for a second to watch the horses gallop by on their way to the finish line. They are serious about this pastime. They sit and stare and pour in the coins. Hour after hour in a narrow, darkened, smoke-filled room.

The entire scene is depressing. There's no joy, no glamour, no excitement in the air. For those who like the sensations and atmosphere of Atlantic City or a Las Vegas casino, Delaware Park is the pits. Serious gamblers wouldn't waste 10 minutes in a dive like this.

Yet it's a huge financial success. So successful that the Delaware slots threaten to undercut horse racing in Maryland.

The reason is that much of the profits from these machines will go into higher purses for live races, which resume next month for the spring and summer.

There's so much money pouring in that by the end of the season, Delaware Park could be offering far higher purses perhaps double than Pimlico or Laurel. By next year, the Maryland tracks could be left in the dust.

That thought panics Joe De Francis, whose family owns Laurel and Pimlico. He panics easily, but in this case his fears seem justified. He tried to push a bill through the legislature permitting slot machines at three Maryland race tracks, plus three other off-track sites around the state.

It was a hasty move to thwart the Delaware challenge. But it stood no chance of getting enacted this session. Most lawmakers and the governor want to wait to see if the Delaware threat, in fact, becomes reality.

Stopping the momentum toward this form of legalized gambling next year will be difficult. It offers the state enough money to help balance its budget in a soft economy. It also holds the key to paying for a big reduction in the personal income tax. And for counties, it stands as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Money over morals

Proof of gambling's fiscal lure is the sudden turnabout by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. The moral issue of making Baltimore a gambling bastion for slots no longer seems to concern the mayor. It's the lure of tens of millions of dollars for the city's tax coffers that now appeals to him. He, like so many elected leaders, is desperate for cash to cover government budget gaps. Whatever the social or moral cost.

In its original form, the slots bill was appealing because it was limited to sites race tracks that are already isolated, restricted areas. And Delaware has eliminated the fear of organized crime making inroads by tying the track slots directly to Delaware's lottery computers: Every coin is accounted for.

But what may spell the downfall of slots in Maryland is a familiar human weakness greed.

It became more than a race-tracks-only slots bill. It was expanded to add three other off-track betting locations in Maryland to appease the rich or powerful: One site was apparently earmarked for Western Maryland to win over House Speaker Casper Taylor; one on the Eastern Shore to cater to lobbyist Gerry Evans and builder Nathan Landow, and one in downtown Baltimore to mollify baker-developer John Paterakis.

Before it's over next year, look for more slots sites. Already, a black city entrepreneur has signaled that he and other minority businessmen will have to get their slice of the slots pie before black lawmakers approve this deal.

The door could be opened wide for slots sites all over Maryland, depending on who has the most political and financial clout. There's money to be made, and those who worship Mammon have no shame.

Gambling interests also know that once an off-track betting site has slot machines, it is only a matter of time before other casino games are permitted. Greed will have triumphed.

So much for the Tydings Commission's work last fall. It helped kill off casino bills this year and delay serious discussion of legalizing slots till 1997. But the pressure will continue to build. Delaware Park's success as sad as it is makes that inevitable.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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