State might be missing jackpot on slot machines

This Just In...

January 08, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

IF WE'RE going to legalize slot machines in Maryland -- and I'll bet you my Aunt Sadie's lovely rococo mirror we are -- then why are we getting a lot of sticky-fingered middlemen involved?

I strongly dislike the middleman. Every American does. The middleman costs us money. Most people spend their lives trying to get rid of him. All the time you hear people talking like Tony Soprano about whacking the guy: "Let's eliminate the middleman."

So, you got my drift.

In the case of slot machines, the middlemen are the guys in nice suits circling over Maryland right now, looking to dive down and snatch an exclusive piece of the action. I'm talkin' your casino operators, your "gaming experts," your lobbyists, your racetrack owners, and your soon-to-be-former racetrack owners who arranged a nice little parting gift for themselves. Who needs them to get involved in the sticky business of the establishment and operation of slot machine venues when we could do it ourselves?

All we -- the state of Maryland -- need from racetracks is a place to park the machines and then it's geddouddadaway!

Haven't we been running a gambling operation successfully here since Agnew was a household word? As Buddy Roogow, our lottery capo, always says: "I'm Moe Green!"

For 30 years the state has been running a numbers operation -- "You gotta play to lose!" -- and the only thing in state government that seems to have grown faster than the lottery operation -- $1.3 billion in sales last year -- is the size of William Donald Schaefer's forehead.

I would dare say that, all things considered, the Maryland Lottery, with the effervescent Buddy running it, is one of the most effective operations in state government. Wouldn't you agree, Buddy?

As Sen. John J. Hafer, an Allegany County Republican, said last month: "I think Buddy and his group have done a fantastic job, and we're grateful for that."

Yeah, a lot of politicians are grateful for that -- the lottery brings in big money pols would otherwise have to raise through taxes.

So, if the state-as-big-bookie works so well, why get the middlemen in the middle of this slots thing? Why not have the state run slots and increase the public's take of the revenues? Keep it all high-tech and clean. Why gum it up?

And here's another thing: I want to thank Elijah Cummings, the congressman from Baltimore, for the revelation I'm having. (It's delicious, your honor.)

Cummings and other African-American politicians had a closed-door gathering in a restaurant Monday to discuss how to get their black constituents a piece of the action when -- not so much "if" -- slots start to infest the local culture. Baltimore ministers might oppose more legalized gambling -- it might constitute a further tax on the poor they champion -- but Cummings and his congressional colleague, Albert Wynn of Prince George's, are already holding out their hands and asking: "Where's ours?"

Said Cummings: "If it happens, we want to make sure we're on the ground floor."

(I called Cummings yesterday, to find out if he actually supports slots, but didn't hear back from him.)

Pete Rawlings, the state delegate from Baltimore, also took part in Monday's slots chat. No surprise there. Rawlings also wants diversity in the great lobbying orgy unfolding in Annapolis over slots. A few months ago, he told a reporter: "My concern is that African-American and minority lobbyists participate in the largess as well. If a major gaming company hires [white lobbyists such as] Ira Cooke or Bruce Bereano and is going to pay them $300,000, we would expect that there be some African-American and minority participation in this lobbying effort and that it be substantial, not just $10,000."

So, you see how smarmy this is getting.

It wouldn't be this way if we eliminated all the middlemen and just put Buddy Roogow in charge of slots.

The incoming Republican governor sees slots as a way to avoid raising income taxes in the fifth-wealthiest state. For Bobby Governor, it's a quick way to help close the budget gap. (His budget for next year already lists $400 million in slot revenue.)

But come on. Couldn't the state get a much bigger piece of the action if the Maryland Lottery -- and not the racetracks, not some future casino operator -- ran the show?

Let's set up slots in racetracks and have the state own and maintain the machines. We'll give the racetracks a little slice of the revenue -- and rent the floor space required for the machines. But that's it. No need to turn the whole operation over.

We should set up slot machines in bars, sports grills and family restaurants. Where there are Keno machines, there could be video slot machines -- directly linked to the Maryland Lottery.

Put them in grocery stores and malls, convenience stores and hotel lobbies.

You ought to be able to slip a few dollars into one of those computerized bandits while waiting in line at the Royal Farm. Why try to limit the slots to racetracks? Are we trying to hide them? Are we ashamed or something?

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