Lady Luck taps out the slots

July 21, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

THE ODDS ON legalizing slot machines at state horse tracks next year weren't good to begin with. Now it's a longshot bet.

Scandal, or the hint of hanky-panky, has touched key players in the slots crusade. And an out-of-control elected prosecutor has provided proof positive that expanded gambling is an invitation to chaos.

All this happened in a matter of days. Much of it has nothing to do directly with slot machines and the beleaguered racing industry. Yet the impact will be felt most directly by them.

First, track owner Joe De Francis, prime mover behind slots for the tracks, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of campaign-contributions laws by using his relatives to shield $12,000 of his own contributions to the 1994 Glendening for Governor drive.

Then racing-commission chairman Allan Levey, prime mover on the panel for bringing slot machines to Maryland's grandstands, resigned abruptly after revealing he had failed to disclose a $20,000 loan from a horse owner -- wealthy Baltimore businessman Henry Rosenberg.

Both episodes cast a long shadow over slots. If the big backers of this drive engage in such unseemly conduct, can you imagine what would happen if slots were allowed at the race tracks?

Not only is the state's major track owner willing to play games with election law to ingratiate himself with the governor, but the chief overseer of the racing industry is willing to become indebted to someone who might come before his commission some day on a racing matter.

The coup de grace came when word filtered out of the Appalachians last week that Allegany County's state's attorney, Lawrence V. Kelly, had unilaterally declared slot machines legal in non-profit clubs in that subdivision -- though he had no power to do so.

He thinks the current law is unfair. So he took matters into his own hands and created his own ground rules for introducing legalized slots to Allegany. He even set up his own reporting system that conveniently bypassed the state as far as taxation is concerned.

His actions -- if carried out -- are blatantly illegal, so much so that he risks removal or being charged with misfeasance by the attorney general if he persists.

Kelly's Law

This was the same state's attorney who earlier in the year declared that he would no longer enforce gambling laws in Allegany because he disagreed with them. Kelly's Law apparently supersedes Maryland law. It's a scene right out of the Old West.

Mr. Kelly has succeeded in making a joke out of the slots issue. No self-respecting state legislator will touch the legalization question when appointed and elected leaders are running amok. Next thing you know, Mr. Kelly will declare casinos legal in his county and bring in his own cashiers to count the proceeds. Imagine what would happen if gambling were expanded in the other 23 Maryland subdivisions that way.

For a while, legal slots looked appealing. They would provide lots of new revenue for the state at a time of budget shortfalls, and for impoverished Baltimore and other localities where slots would operate. It would give the race tracks a way to dramatically boost racing purses and embark on an expensive modernization plan.

But the negatives are suffocating the positives. Greedy entrepreneurs and politicians have sworn to bring slots to their regions and to locations outside race tracks. Casino legalization would be a given within a few years. Strict law enforcement at so many locations would be impossible, opening the door to all sorts of scams and organized crimes.

Worst of all for the politicos in Annapolis, the public reaction would be fiercely hostile. Gambling expansion already is frowned upon by a wide margin in opinion polls. Legalizing slots would be viewed as a corrupt enterprise. Any incumbent embracing slots takes a risk that could lead to defeat at the next election.

There still will be plenty of action on the slots question. Lobbyists are being paid huge sums to see to that. But there's no groundswell of support. In fact, politicians are running away from the issue. They know a liability when they see one.

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

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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