On slot machines, a tale of levers and leverage Schmoke, Glendening went from critics to backers in just a year

August 04, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jean Thompson contributed to this article.

A year ago, in the heat of a tough re-election campaign, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told a group of city ministers just what they wanted to hear.

"Based on my review, I oppose casino gambling for Baltimore City," the mayor said. "I think we can go other ways in stimulating economic development."

Four months later, Gov. Parris N. Glendening had a similar message for another group of ministers and gambling opponents.

"We do not want, and we will not permit, casinos in our state," the governor said.

He left open a slim chance of allowing slot machines at Maryland racetracks -- but said he would do so only as "a last resort" to save a dying industry, not as a means of raising money for government. "We do not need to balance the budget with casino revenues."

That was then.

Today, in an alliance built of political necessity and financial opportunity, Schmoke and Glendening appear to be lining up shoulder to shoulder in the effort to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland -- thanks largely to the torrent of tax revenue the devices would generate.

The mayor said last week that he had a commitment from Glendening to support slots at the state's racetracks, with at least $25 million of the proceeds going to the cash-strapped city for its beleaguered schools.

The governor's version of the agreement is more conditional: Glendening will back slots only if there is evidence Maryland racing is suffering.

The introduction of slot machines would be the biggest expansion of gambling in Maryland since the lottery began in 1973.

The rewards could be immense -- some $245 million in new tax revenue a year,according to one estimate.

But with a large chunk of the population opposed, any embrace of casino-style wagering is fraught with political risk complicated by Maryland's long history of gambling-related corruption.

For Schmoke, the lure of a large new source of money to offset his dwindling tax base has proved too great to resist. For Glendening, a move toward slots would be a high-stakes strategy that might forever identify him as the "gambling governor."

The question is: Does he have a choice?

A legacy of corruption

Legal for-profit casinos disappeared from Maryland on a warm summer night 28 years ago, when the last of thousands of slot machines that dotted four Southern Maryland counties was turned off.

The slots attracted gamblers from up and down the East Coast, but ultimately were doomed by rampant political corruption and stories of lives wrecked by the one-armed bandits.

Two years ago, several out-of-state companies decided it was time to bring casino-style gambling back to Maryland.

The casino interests hired the state's best lobbyists and dispatched them to Annapolis and economically struggling towns such as Cambridge and Cumberland to sell the benefits of "gaming."

The effort sputtered. By last year, the casino operators were taking a different tack; they forged an uneasy alliance with the politically powerful Maryland racing industry, with its 250-year history and an entrenched spot in the state's heritage.

While the racing industry focused on bringing slot machines to the tracks to ward off competition from new slots at Delaware tracks, the casino interests said they would be content with opening slot parlors at off-track betting outlets.

When a slots bill emerged in the General Assembly in March, Schmoke became an enthusiastic backer, focusing less on saving racing and more on saving Baltimore.

"If it can benefit us to the tune of 40 [million] to 50 million dollars a year, then I'm going to support [slots at the racetracks]," Schmoke said.

"Clearly we would have money for promotion of the convention center, we would have money for schools, we would have money for a lot of other things."

But the governor pledged to veto such legislation, saying he needed to see a year's worth of evidence about the impact of Delaware slots before he could decide.

The bill never got out of a House committee.

Schmoke's shift

The state's efforts to force changes in the Baltimore City school system engulfed Glendening and Schmoke as the legislature adjourned in April.

Both the governor and the mayor said they wanted to resolve the lawsuit the city filed last year seeking more state education aid. But finding an answer to what could be the defining issue of Schmoke's third term as mayor proved elusive.

State legislators had demanded that Schmoke give up control of the city school system -- a move overflowing with political risk for him.

Many black supporters, in particular, might look dimly on the mayor if he ceded power to a white governor.

For his part, Schmoke made it clear he needed the city to have a generous payoff from the state to settle the dispute. Despite a looming budget shortfall, Glendening offered $140 million over five years. Schmoke demanded much more.

By last month, the mayor had concluded there was only one way for the state to come up with the money -- slot machines.

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