Watching Maryland Cash Cross State Line

April 22, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS GAMBLERS on a lucky streak love to announce: Read it and weep, folks. The latest slot machine figures have arrived from Delaware, where they can't count all their brand new money fast enough.

Already in this new year, more than $470 million has been wagered at the slots at Delaware Park, $217 million at Dover Downs and $144 million at Harrington - an estimated 25 percent or more arriving each day from Marylanders' pockets.

And, while Maryland watches millions of dollars drift across state lines in daily car and bus traffic, and watches its own lottery betting simultaneously dwindle, and listens to the death rattle of its horse racing industry, its General Assembly let gambling legislation fade this winter without comment - except, of course, for the comments of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, declaring, "No gambling, not now, not ever."

Such language has been thrilling to Delaware, whose officials last week announced the following from its state's three slot machine venues:

Players wagered nearly $2.2 billion in the first year of organized gambling - which was more than five times initial expectations.

In March, Delaware passed the $3 billion milestone, as play hit a record $9.79 million - per day.

And, perhaps most painful of all, players are arriving from an ever-widening market. A year ago, 69 percent of Delaware's players were in-state. Now, about 39 percent. In other words, they're getting fat on other people's money, including players from Maryland, and increasing numbers from Virginia, whose players think nothing of driving through Maryland to get to Delaware's action.

To which Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., when informed of the new figures Sunday evening, declared softly, "And this is just the beginning."

Meaning, West Virginia's slots are on the way, as are Pennsylvania's. Meaning, money will be leaking out of Maryland like a sieve.

Meaning, Taylor said, there's got to be a new plan. He wanted to legalize slot machines in the last legislative session, and thought he had state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's support, but watched Miller back off late in the session while Glendening held to his no-gambling posture.

This, despite the promise of new jobs being created. This, despite the promise of new money and new energy. This, despite Delaware's success taking major action out of Maryland's lottery and the new, larger racetrack purses in Delaware sending shock waves through Maryland's horse racing industry - and causing much concern about the very future of Pimlico Race Course and its venerable Preakness.

"I was thinking about all of this this morning," Taylor was saying Sunday evening. "All this is happening in Delaware. And West Virginia and Pennsylvania are on the way. And we're just gonna sit here and let it happen. Well, I'm almost prepared to put something new into the works."

He's thinking about legislation for next winter that would authorize six slot machine operations - three at Maryland tracks, and three off-track ventures, perhaps at resort hotels, spread around the state, with profits specifically earmarked for education.

If it all sounds a little too similar to this year's failed efforts - what about the governor's pledge to continue blocking all gambling legislation? - here's the difference: Taylor's thinking about asking for a public referendum.

Such a vote would come in September of 1998, when the state holds its primary election for governor. As he faces his own re-election vote, how could Glendening say no to the people's right to choose on other major issues?

Would Marylanders vote for gambling? A few months ago, Peter D. Hart Research Associates of Washington did a poll on behalf of Maryland racing interests. It found 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 financial troubles it faces from Delaware - 66 percent said slots would be a good idea, and only 28 percent said no.

Taylor is concerned about juicing Western Maryland's grim economy. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, scrounging for city funds, thought he had Glendening's OK on gambling, only to have the governor change position. Senate President Miller backed off late in the session, saying he worried that approving slot machines might open the door to casino action.

Yeah, there's a real worry. A few months ago, the Greater Baltimore Committee released a study suggesting that 10 casinos in Maryland would create more than 12,000 jobs and generate $435 million in tax revenues.

Instead, a lot of that money's headed for Delaware, which wakes up every morning and gives thanks to Maryland.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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