Maryland's gambling dilemma Casinos are bad, but bingo, tip jars and lottery are good.

February 09, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron

SLOT MACHINES are evil. Casinos are worse. And bringing them to Maryland will strike at the very fiber of the state.

That was the message delivered by Bishop George Paul Mocko, leader of the regional synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at an anti-casino pep rally staged last week by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Oh, the bishop added, there was one other problem: Slot machines in Delaware have already cut into the church's profits from its own gambling nights there.

The bishop's remarks were a frank reminder that, whatever comes out of the current debate over casinos and slot machines in Annapolis, Maryland is already awash in gambling.

And, more importantly, a lot of people have gotten used to the money generated by gambling. Consider some of the speakers who joined Bishop Mocko at the anti-casino event in the State House.

Among them was Steven Sager, mayor of Hagerstown.

Sager never mentioned the tip jar gambling that is widespread in his hometown and through much of Western Maryland.

In a typical tip-jar game, several hundred tickets, which cost $1 each, are kept in a box or basket. Inside the ticket is a series of numbers, some of which mean instant prizes, usually $10 or $25. Other tickets are "holders" that give the purchaser a shot at the game's grand prize of $100 or more, which is announced when all the tickets are bought.

Every year, bettors drop millions of dollars into tip-jar kitties. And local fire companies, charities and even for-profit bars have come to depend on the proceeds.

The Roman Catholic Conference also sent a representative to join the governor last week. Never discussed were the weekly bingo games that are a staple of life in parishes across the state and which produce an important source of income to supplement what's dropped in the collection plates at Mass.

The Eastern Shore had several clergy and legislators at Glendening's event.

Del. Bennett Bozman, a Democrat from Worcester County, told the assembled crowd that slots or casinos would be a dangerous lure to people inclined to gamble too much.

Just a few hours earlier, Bozman had played a different role -- defender of gambling -- testifying in support of his legislation to erase the minimal tax that the state's racing industry has to pay. The tax reduction, he said, would help keep Delmarva Downs, a harness track outside Ocean City, afloat.

And nobody from the Eastern Shore mentioned that slot machines are already legal in one area of the state -- the Shore. Slots in dozens of fraternal clubs generate more than $5 million in profits yearly for the clubs and charities on the Shore.

Finally, there was the governor, who has seemingly turned the casino/slots issue into his No. 1 priority during this year's legislative session.

"There is a right way and a wrong way to fund our priorities," said the governor. "Slots and casinos are the wrong way."

The governor, though, did not tell the assembled group about the extra $2 million he wants to spend to advertise the state's own gambling enterprise -- the Maryland lottery. That is the same lottery, of course, that is paying for the governor's No. 1 priority last year -- the new football stadium now rising at Camden Yards.

This year, the governor and the legislature are concerned that dwindling lottery profits will make it harder to enact an income tax cut or to begin expensive new education and health programs.

Glendening also criticized the proposal by some lawmakers in his home county of Prince George's to pass legislation allowing local nonprofit groups to continue their twice-weekly casino nights.

Glendening talked about the problems the casino nights have spawned, such as theft and embezzlement, but never mentioned the millions of dollars in fire equipment and other community projects the gambling proceeds paid for during his 12 years as county executive.

Democratic Del. D. Bruce Poole, like Sager from Hagerstown, said the attitude of many casino opponents could be summed up this way: "We're firmly against anyone else being allowed to gamble."

But many opponents of casinos say they can easily draw a distinction between tip jars or the lottery and full-blown casinos or slot machines.

"We've got tip jars totally under control," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Republican from Washington County. But once slots or casinos come to Maryland, he said,the state will become "addicted" to the revenue.

"Slots will decide who will own the state. We'll never be able to do without them again," he said.

Richard Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said there is a big difference between a little Friday-night bingo at the parish hall and a casino. Bringing slot machines to Maryland's tracks would inevitably lead to legalization of casinos, say Dowling, Glendening and others.

"We see a camel's nose under the tent," Dowling said. "It would be a precursor to having Amahl and the night visitors show up with a whole herd of camels."

And Bozman said that while he opposes casinos and slots, he would like to see the racing industry -- and its more palatable style of gambling -- survive in Maryland.

"Slot machines are something that as fast as you can feed money into them, they give you a game," Bozman said. "With racing, at least there's only eight to 12 races a night."

Thomas W. Waldron is the Annapolis Bureau Chief for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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