Don't gamble with Maryland's future

April 16, 2002

MIDWAY THROUGH his stay in Annapolis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening adopted a pat response to recurrent questions about gambling: No casinos. No slots. No exceptions.

Time to dust off that mantra. Time to prove that sincere opposition - and not politics - was behind his stance.

All he needs to do is veto a bill that could allow a group of people claiming Native American ancestry to build a casino. Advocates of the bill insist casinos were not the purpose of legislation passed on the last day of the Assembly session. A casino proposal, they say, would have great difficulty making its way through the maze of government regulations.

But why would anyone as opposed to gambling as Mr. Glendening has said he is leave the door open even a centimeter?

If he does, he'll be opening himself to charges of cronyism: One of his friends, Lance W. Billingsley, a member of the state's Board of Regents, was paid $10,000 in 1997 to help the Piscataway-Conoy Indians in their pursuit of tribal status. And he'd be charged with another egregious flip-flop.

Before he became governor, the political world assumed Mr. Glendening was as pro-gambling as you could get. As Prince George's County executive, he presided over a jamboree of gaming conducted by almost every conceivable civic group. Those operations produced significant sums of money for civic needs. The gaming operation was so lucrative that some feared an incursion by organized crime.

Mr. Glendening converted only when it looked as if he was too close to gambling interests. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke said the governor agreed to allow slot machines in Baltimore to help the city pay for its many needs. The governor swore he'd made no such promise and adopted the "No-No-No" mantra to show implacable opposition.

The tribal interests say they want the federal status so they can qualify for various educational, health and housing benefits. And while they own no land, they could in the future. But their quest need not be adopted by the state if the cost is casino gambling. And the involvement of developers - Richard A. Swirnow of Baltimore and Mark R. Vogel of Prince George's - suggests there's more than social programs at stake.

Though gambling will be pitched as economic development, the Tydings Commission concluded several years ago that casinos and slots could actually lead to a net loss of jobs as local businesses downsize or close in response to losing customer dollars to gambling.

Those who continue to push for slots propose to put them at race tracks only and to use the proceeds to improve Maryland's historic horse industry. Some of the revenue would be used for public education, they say. And with the state facing enormous needs, gambling's appeal could grow.

Casinos might well scuttle the race tracks, slots or not. Slot players might well bypass the horses in favor of the full service gambling emporium.

So, Mr. Glendening should recite his catchy chant one more time - and veto the bill.

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