An index of our moral sentiment

August 04, 1996|By Peter Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- So the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore have a deal, the paper says. These two esteemed public servants have agreed to work together to bring slot machines back to the state.

The public, remembering the last adventure with these devices and the colorful people who accompanied them, isn't high on that idea. But what does the public know? It's the paternal responsibility of government to give the public what it needs, rather than it wants. This is called governing in the public interest.

Of course, just because Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke want something, there's no guarantee they'll get it. The General Assembly usually needs to sign on, too. But there is a sense that big wheels are in motion and that fairly soon, with a whirr and a buzz and a clankety-clank, the slots will come marching back to us from out of the past.

The last time they were legal here, almost 30 years ago now, the machines were credited with bringing Maryland some useful revenues, an unspecified amount of political corruption and the disapproving attention of the nation as focused by congressional investigators. Neighboring states scowled, especially Virginia, whose citizens could walk on piers extending into the Potomac and find Maryland's casinos there.

Suddenly progressive

This time the slots are advertised as offering instant salvation for two moribund institutions, Maryland horse racing and Baltimore City public education. This will enable their supporters to promote them as a progressive cause on both economic and civic grounds, and be handy for Messrs. Glendening and Schmoke, card-carrying progressives both. They can now be for slots because slots will be Good for the People.

Marylanders with moderately long memories will recall that the last time slot machines were front-and-center on the political stage here, the progressive position was to be against them. How did they suddenly become a cause that progressives can now embrace?

The answer is simply political attitudes change with the times. "One of the best indexes to American moral sentiment is the attitude toward gambling," wrote George Callcott in his history of postwar Maryland. "During cynical times, like the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s, gambling flourishes, and during times of idealism, like the 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s, moralists seek to ban it."

Maryland, like the nation, teeters back and forth between political cynicism and political moralism. Some of the same progressive state legislators who in the 1960s favored elimination of slots were supporters of the state lottery when it was authorized in 1973.

(That wasn't the state's first lottery. In the 19th century it used lotteries to finance all sorts of projects, including the University of Maryland. It abandoned them after the Civil War.)

History suggests that most legislative efforts to regulate gambling are like trying to control the ebb and flow of the tide. They may have some short-lived local impact, but mostly the gambling dollars, in Maryland generally estimated to be about 6 percent of individual income, flow around them and emerge elsewhere.

Thus when in the 1920s Maryland first sought to regulate horse racing by providing a regulatory framework in exchange for a cut of the revenue, it made the sport less attractive to a certain kind of gambler. Revenues dropped. And oddly, at about the same time, the amount bet on the illegal daily numbers game picked up sharply.

After a slot-machine phaseout was approved by the General Assembly in 1963, betting on horse racing and legal bingo games increased. So did betting on the numbers. And after 1973 many of these dollars were diverted again into the new state lottery.

There are three ways government can approach gambling. It can try to ban it. It can semi-socialize it by regulating it and trying to keep some of the revenues. Or it can consider it a legitimate human pastime and leave it be -- perhaps taxing the profits of those who engage in it commercially.

Maryland hasn't been socially puritanical enough to try the first approach or politically courageous enough to try the third. So it blunders along in the middle, perpetually trying to grab more of nTC the gambling dollars and continually frustrated as it sees most of the revenues slipping away.

Will bringing back slots change that? Don't bet on it.

Peter Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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