The one-armed bandit in Annapolis last week...

THEY BURIED

April 01, 1996

THEY BURIED the one-armed bandit in Annapolis last week, but the issue may rise, phoenix-like, in January. This year merely marked the opening legislative debate on this troubling question: Should Maryland sanction slot machine parlors to save the racing industry and provide a new pot of cash for hard-strapped governments?

Racing officials say slots are critical. Delaware tracks are reaping millions from their slots parlors and will dramatically boost purses. Larger purses mean better horses -- many abandoning Laurel and Pimlico -- and serious bettors lured from Maryland tracks.

But lawmakers wisely decided to wait until there has been a year of slots gambling in Delaware to measure the impact on local tracks.

This summer, the House Ways and Means Committee will study Maryland's racing industry. So far, all the information has come from the racing fraternity. Close scrutiny by analysts and lawmakers could give us a more impartial judgment as to what the state should do to support this $1 billion-a-year industry.

Sadly, the slots discussion has spread beyond the tracks. Entrepreneurs with powerful friends want their own parlors. House Speaker Casper Taylor insists on a Western Maryland slots-OTB parlor. Mayor Kurt Schmoke, eyeing desperately needed cash, reversed his earlier stance and embraced slots parlors, not just at the tracks but also near the Inner Harbor.

What makes this proposal enticing for Mr. Schmoke and other leaders is the enormous amount of cash it could mean for state and local programs. The mayor wants at least $50 million a year for the city as his stake; racing officials say the state could reap a minimum of $100 million a year under their plan. In an era of severe budget crunch, this kind of money becomes almost irresistible to office-holders.

We urge legislators to study all angles of this issue very carefully. It is fraught with peril. The rewards are enticing, yet the impact could be highly destructive. Still, something must be done to help Maryland's racing industry. Ways must be found to underwrite important government programs, too. But why slot machines?

Pub Date: 4/01/96

Burying the one-armed bandit; Slots at tracks: Racing's future, cash for governments not enough to legalize machines.

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