No place for slots in state, group says

NOcasiNO pressing case despite diminishing support from legislators

January 06, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Sitting at the kitchen table in a modest ranch-style house in Glen Burnie, Kimberly S. Roman and Barbara Knickelbein sort through a stack of informational brochures and bright-yellow postcards.

They are marshaling ammunition for their fight to keep slot machines out of Maryland. The cards and brochures are filled with detailed arguments about why allowing casino-style gambling in the state is a bad idea. The two co-chairwomen of NOcasiNO-Maryland hope that this information will rally others to their cause, and prove persuasive to wavering legislators.

"Slots Revenue: Jackpot or Fool's Gold?" reads one brochure. It lists what Roman and Knickelbein describe as the "ABCs" of casino-style gambling: "Addiction & Abuse; Bankruptcy & Business Closings; Crime & Corruption."

The two women are working with a grass-roots, statewide network of e-mail correspondents, church groups and others to make sure legislators know that they don't want casino-style gambling in Maryland.

"I'm very confident that we can win this," says Roman.

As a child growing up in Las Vegas, Roman experienced the downsides of gambling first hand. Her father parked her outside the casino playing area as he went in to play the slots.

"I can't tell you how many hours I spent sitting around, waiting and waiting," she said. When she was 12, her father left the family.

Roman said she doesn't want any other child to go through what she experienced.

Knickelbein got involved in the anti-gambling movement through her church, Glen Burnie United Methodist. She and her husband own property in Ocean City and were alarmed by talk in 1995 of putting casinos there.

Although Roman and Knickelbein have been fighting periodic attempts to introduce slots into Maryland for the past eight years, they are acutely aware that they face a tough battle in the coming, 90-day session of the General Assembly, which will begin Wednesday.

Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. made revenue from slots a centerpiece of his budget plans during the gubernatorial race. And some Republican lawmakers who were past allies of the anti-slots group are backing away as they grapple with the state's budget woes.

Ehrlich projects that allowing the electronic gambling devices at four Maryland horse-racing tracks could generate $800 million a year for the state treasury within two or three years. In the fiscal year that will start July 1, licensing fees and taxes on slots could generate $380 million, according to his aides.

Faced with the choice of raising taxes or cutting state services, more legislators are openly saying that they see slots as a less painful alternative.

The change in the political winds was evident before the fall elections, as Roman and Knickelbein gathered signatures of legislators on a pledge to oppose any legislation to allow slots.

In 1998, 48 of the 141 members of the House and 20 of the 47 members of the Senate signed the pledge. This year, 21 members of the House and seven members of the Senate signed it.

Roman said she was particularly disappointed that several Republicans who had a history of opposing slots seemed to be abandoning that stance.

Legislators who are prepared to use slots to raise money for the state treasury are being short-sighted, Roman says: "They are just looking at the immediate benefits." She contends that the social costs far outweigh the benefits of gambling.

But she and Knickelbein have all but given up hope of persuading Ehrlich to come around to their view. "I don't know what it takes to get through to him," said Knickelbein.

Still, the two are distributing "No Slots, Mr. Ehrlich" postcards among their anti-slots network and at churches. They are encouraging people to fill them out and mail them to Ehrlich, or to give the governor-elect their views on slot machines through e-mail messages or telephone calls.

"If [Ehrlich] gets a hint that the vast majority of people are against it, he might stop pushing it so hard," Roman said.

But a spokesman for Ehrlich said that voters have spoken on the issue by electing Ehrlich over his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who opposed legalizing slots.

Roman counters that a newspaper poll conducted shortly after the election listed slots at the bottom the list of reasons voters gave for casting their ballots for Ehrlich.

Adds Knickelbein: "Our message to legislators is, don't listen to the big companies that want to bring in slots. The people don't want it. "

If the two Glen Burnie women are daunted by the battle ahead, they don't let it show. They keep gathering ammunition.

They could scarcely contain their glee when Roman recently dug up a 1995 report that they believe will be an effective tool in their crusade to keep slot machines out of Maryland.

It is a highly critical, 46-page analysis of casino-style gambling -- detailing how casinos would drain money from local bars, restaurants and other forms of entertainment, and arguing that the promised economic and tax benefits would prove illusory.

The twist? The people who were saying this to state legislators eight years ago were Maryland horse-racing interests, led by racing executive Joseph A. De Francis. Their main point was that casinos would have a devastating impact on Maryland's racing industry.

Since then, as racetrack casinos in West Virginia and Delaware have siphoned business from Maryland's tracks, the landscape has changed drastically. And lobbyists for De Francis and horse-racing interests are busy shooting down some of the very arguments against casino-style gambling that they made in their earlier report.

Roman and Knickelbein say they believe that racing interests had it right the first time. The duo has prepared a brochure -- "Straight From the Horse's Mouth" -- that summarizes the major points of the analysis that was done in 1995.

"I think that they did a great job," Roman said with a laugh. "I want to thank them for their good work."

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