Governor's stand on gambling hard to explain

February 23, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- Parris Glendening makes enemies when he ought to be making nice. He now has the mayor of Baltimore using the word "liar," and the racetrack people calling him the killer of an entire industry, and the pollsters declaring, this is a governor doing himself no good.

tTC All of this revolves around slot machines and the estimated $500 million -- that is no misprint -- from Marylanders' pockets that was spent across the border in Delaware last year while Glendening was declaring, "No gambling, not now, not ever."

Since the notion of Glendening taking a stand for any reason other than sheer political opportunism occurs to almost no one around here, it gets tougher to figure his continued stance on gambling.

There is a new poll making its way around the statehouse. It was done by Peter D. Hart Research Associates of Washington on behalf of Maryland racing interests, and it says Glendening is sadly misreading the electorate if he thinks he's scoring points by fighting gambling.

Among the findings:

A majority of Marylanders -- 56 percent to 39 percent -- favors legalizing slot machines at the state's racetracks.

When apprised of details about the state's horse racing industry -- the 17,000 jobs tied into racing, the $1.2 billion it contributes to the economy and the current financial troubles it faces since Delaware put slot machines into its tracks -- 66 percent feel slots at Maryland tracks would be a good idea, and only 28 percent disagree.

Among those who disagree, however, is Glendening. It's a posture that looks calculated but strange on many levels, beginning with the mayor of Baltimore. Seven months ago, Kurt L. Schmoke thought he had a deal with Glendening to bring slot machines to Maryland racetracks, with the gambling money used to help Baltimore schools.

When the story of his deal with Glendening went public, the governor said he'd made no such promise. He has stuck with that story for the last seven months. Last week, Schmoke told the Washington Post he's upset that Glendening "continues to say it just didn't happen. That's just flat-out wrong ...I get tired of essentially being called a liar."

Kurt Schmoke is the last man in America Parris Glendening wants to alienate - with the possible exception of Larry Gibson. Without their support in the last race, we're now looking at a governor named Sauerbrey. Without Schmoke-Gibson support in the next race -- including a Democratic primary, a race that could include Rep. Ben Cardin, who's currently reading every poll he can find -- Glendening is gone.

Among the governor's problems is the notion that he's a waffler, a man with no firm convictions about anything, who's available to any folks currently scratching his palm. So gambling has become his great public show of intestinal fortitude, of taking a stand and refusing to budge.

The thing everybody around here can't figure out is: Why?

It pits him against the leadership in both legislative houses, which wants gambling. It turns a deaf ear to Schmoke's cries about money for Baltimore. It alienates those counties hit hardest not only by Delaware's slots but also by slots coming to West Virginia.

Also, according to the Hart survey, it wins him little support among voters. Though a majority of them favor gambling, most also say it's not an issue they've been thinking about.

Only 25 percent say they know a lot or a fair amount about the issue, while 50 percent say they know very little or nothing at all. And 67 percent say the slot machine issue is somewhat, or not very, important.

But they do think horse racing's important, and they don't like the threat to racing from out-of-state slots. In their first year of operation, Delaware slots did $2.1 billion in business, even though all of their machines were not operational. Delaware estimates 25 percent of that came from Maryland bettors. That's $500 million. Others say the Maryland figure is closer to 33 percent. Do your own math.

What's also hurting is the Maryland lottery. Since Delaware commenced slot machines, the lottery's turned sluggish. To combat drooping sales, Glendening wants to juice the lottery's advertising budget by $2 million. This figure, racetrack people point out, is vastly higher than racing's entire advertising budget.

All of this leaves Glendening not only facing the racetrack people and the new poll saying Marylanders want slots -- but also the Greater Baltimore Committee, which last week released a study suggesting that 10 casinos in Maryland (including five in Baltimore) would generate $435 million in tax revenues and create more than 12,000 jobs in Maryland.

Those are tough numbers for any governor to fight. Particularly when the fight's so tough to explain.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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