Governor gambles on editorials

September 15, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the beginning there was God, but now we have Parris Glendening. God, we were informed, saw great sinfulness in gambling, and never mind all those Bingo games in church basements.

Glendening, the governor of all Maryland, wishes to step in now because God and the sinfulness argument are looking a little shaky. It's hard to claim the immorality of gambling when the state's become the biggest gambler of them all with its various lottery games. But the governor is trying.

The latest word from his office, arriving at week's end in response to undernourished Allegany County's plea to juice its economy by legalizing slot machines, is: Forget it.

This governor, we are told, reads newspaper editorials. The editorials say gambling is bad for us. They say this, you might notice, while their sports pages run point spreads and advice for betting on football games, plus coverage of the lottery numbers and racetrack entries. But, when it comes to slot machines or casinos the editorials speak with a smug, patronizing tone that the governor has adopted as his own involving "core values" and "poor personal investment strategy" that leaves you thinking they're all clueless about the world that exists outside of boardrooms.

It was newspaper editorials, friends of the governor whisper, that prompted Glendening to change his mind about the contents of a meeting with Kurt L. Schmoke. Schmoke says Glendening agreed to help finance city schools with the profits from slot machines. Glendening hedged. Then he read some editorials, saying gambling was bad, and thus he saw the light, and he rushed to declare, "I never in this lifetime agreed to do whatever it was my good friend and political savior Mayor Schmoke swears I agreed to do, not that I'm calling him a miserable liar."

In a culture where people bet on which raindrop will slip first down a window, and those in the front lobbies of great buildings wager which elevator will arrive first, the argument over legalized gambling seems a little removed from reality.

When the state belatedly figured this out some years back, and decided to cash in on it with the lottery, it dropped all arguments about God and morality overnight -- until the current discussions about casinos and slot machines arrived, at which point they were reinvoked like ancient religious chants.

New gambling, says the governor, would be unhealthy. Bad for ZTC families, bad for the government, too. He said this after his reading of editorials, and after the various embarrassing disclosures of how he took what later turned out to be laundered campaign money from racetrack interests desperate for slot machines to save their shaky industry, and he once again said gambling was bad last week, not only in response to a report by the Allegany Gaming Study Commission seeking expanded legal gambling in Western Maryland but -- get this -- at the same time the state commenced its participation in The Big Game, a new multistate lottery involving not only Maryland but Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia.

Yeah, gambling's bad. The governor of all Maryland says it, while professing to be "shocked" over racetrack contributions to his campaign. And the editorials of newspapers say it while running the various sporting odds.

And the thing that's sometimes most maddening of all is the sense of tone. Gambling's a bad "investment," we're informed in the most solemn language. Instead of blowing their disposable income at a blackjack table, people should be investing it into a tax-deferred municipal bond with a guaranteed annual yield.

Somebody needs to explain life outside the boardroom a little: Gambling's not an investment, it's an entertainment. Like going to a Ravens game, which is a gamble not worth today's 3 1/2 point spread, according to the experts writing in this very newspaper; or going to see a movie, which is rarely a good bet these days, though you never find this out until you've spent $14 for two tickets and the remainder of your weekly savings for popcorn and soda and then exit, the governor apparently supposes, muttering to yourself, "Damn! Why did I blow my disposable income on that miserable piece of romantic escapism when I could have called my broker to invest it in glamorous gas and electric stock?"

Are there dangers in legalizing more gambling? Of course, just as there's danger in any new endeavor, such as the building of Harborplace. When William Donald Schaefer said we'd make this a tourist town, everybody laughed who didn't sneer. But Schaefer knew something: The days of the big manufacturing tax base were done around here. We had to change. It's that way across America, which has become a nation that produces information and entertainment in its newest survival mode.

With any change, you weigh the dangers and take precautions and police the thing as best you can. But spare us the smug morality lessons. That argument lost all its muscle the first time the state took 50 cents on a lottery bet.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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