WHEN YOU DON'T enforce the law, guess what usually happens?
Violations proliferate, especially if those violations can mean big financial gains.
Look at Allegany County, where the state's attorney decided four years ago to ignore Maryland's gambling laws. Now he seems shocked that tip jars (in which "tips" -- similar to instant lottery rub-offs -- are pulled by players from a jar) and electronic gambling machines are the favorite pastime in local taverns. They also have popped up at gas stations, liquor stores and neighborhood groceries.
So State's Attorney Lawrence V. Kelly announced last month he would crack down on gambling violations. Suddenly, those illegal video machines disappeared. But tip jars remain.
Mr. Kelly's pledge of enforcement has yet to be backed up by tough action. This week, he decided not to prosecute a Cumberland bowling alley and bar -- even though $1,000 and tip jar supplies had been seized. What kind of message does that send?
Maryland's gambling laws are a mass of contradictions. Enforcement is inconsistent.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening stoutly opposes slot-machine and casino gambling, but hasn't lifted a finger to halt illegal wagering in Allegany County.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran also is adamantly against gambling, but acquiesced to weak oversight of slot-machine gambling in private clubs on the Eastern Shore.
For years, Baltimore County's state's attorney has winked at illegal video poker machines in bars and eateries. Enforcement against these devices in Baltimore City isn't much better, either.
The situation in Western Maryland is confusing. Tip jars are legal in taverns and private nonprofit clubs in Frederick and Washington counties. But in Allegany, tip jars are permitted only at clubs such as the Elks, Eagles and American Legion halls, and at fund-raisers for volunteer fire companies.
Of course, tavern owners like gambling. It's a nice profit-maker. The money isn't reported to the IRS or state comptroller, either.
It's time for Governor Glendening to appoint a blue-ribbon task force to investigate gambling in Maryland -- from the state-run lottery to pari-mutuel wagering at racetracks, to tip jars and under-the-table payoffs on video poker machines.
There's too much hypocrisy, too many conflicting statutes and too many government lawyers who refuse to do their jobs.
Let's modernize our gambling laws and create a consistent policy. And let's make sure those laws are regularly enforced.