Rawlings advocates gambling bill

Slot machine foes detail objections to House panel

March 13, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Casting expanded gambling as the state's best money-raising option, a leading Baltimore lawmaker urged a General Assembly panel yesterday to let voters decide next year whether 10,000 slot machines should be legalized in Maryland.

During a low-key hearing for a highly contentious bill, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told fellow legislators that slot machines would be the surest and least painful way for the state to help fund public education.

A commission studying how best to restructure Maryland's system of public school financing is expected to recommend that the state spend an extra $300 million to $400 million next year.

"You're either going to have to raise taxes, broaden significantly the sales tax base or look at [slot-machine] revenue as a possible revenue source," Rawlings told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

But he was outnumbered by gambling opponents, several of whom came from the Eastern Shore to argue that slots were dangerously addictive and that handing over the complex issue to voters would amount to a legislative cop-out.

Rawlings was the sole person to advocate his bill aggressively, a sign that support in the General Assembly is slim. Even if the measure advances in the House, its prospects are not good in the Senate, where President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said he does not want to take it up.

The bill's chances are not improved by the firm disapproval of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has opposed expanded gambling since 1996.

The gambling legislation would place a constitutional amendment on the 2002 ballot. Rawlings' proposal is to allow slot machines at four locations - two racetracks and two "tourist-destination locations," such as hotel and golf resorts. The State Lottery Agency would choose the locations and regulate the machines.

An analysis of the bill estimates the machines would generate $720 million a year. According to the bill, half that would go to K-12 schools and public libraries.

Because the bill calls for a constitutional amendment, Glendening would not have to sign it into law.

In an informal agreement with the governor, racetrack owners, who potentially have the most to gain from slots, have agreed not to push for them. In exchange, the governor's administration has helped the horse-racing industry find other revenue sources.

Only one racing representative spoke out yesterday. Timothy Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said that although his members were promoting neither slots nor Rawlings' bill, they were determined to participate in the debate.

"This issue is literally a life-or-death matter to us," he said, describing slot machines at tracks in other states as "the mother's milk keeping the industry alive."

Thoroughbred breeders in Maryland are losing business to Delaware and West Virginia, where the machines are legal, he added.

"In an ideal world, there'd be no other forms of legalized gambling in the state," Capps said after the hearing. "But it's become a matter of fighting for your competitive position."

The non-racetrack sites are not specified in the bill, but contenders could be the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Allegany County and one or two tourist sites being built in financially troubled Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

With the latter possibility in mind, one anti-gambling activist traveled from Dorchester County to tell committee members that slots would hurt the state. Cheryl Michael of the grassroots organization "NOcasiNO" came armed with a "helpline" report from Delaware's Council on Gambling Problems. Last year, about 75 percent of helpline callers said their main addiction was slot machines.

"We elect our elected officials to warn us about things like this," Michael said. "You warn us about drugs, about alcohol, about tobacco. We don't expect you to be promoting things that can be harmful to citizens."

Michael and another "NOcasiNO" member also warned that a referendum was not a fair way to decide the matter, saying gambling interests would likely pour huge amounts of money into a pro-slots media campaign.

"You don't ask the public to vote on tax cuts or increases, education funding or ethical standards for public officials," said Barbara Knickelbein of Glen Burnie. "So why should elected officials now be encouraged to turn from their responsibility to the voters?"

Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. also came to Annapolis to oppose the bill, arguing that his town would be degraded by gambling and that Maryland has better ways to attract tourist dollars.

"I remember the day they sold the first lottery ticket in Maryland," he said, noting the subsequent proliferation of scratch tickets and Keno.

"Respectfully, at what point is enough, enough?"

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