Budget gap's just a handy argument for slots' backers

This Just In...

January 13, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

COULD I HAVE a show of hands, please? How many of my fellow Marylanders still believe slot machines are about saving Maryland racetracks? OK, there's one guy in the back of the room with what looks like a $100 haircut and about three other people, all immediate members of the De Francis family, and Mr. William Rickman, who owns Ocean Downs and the new track in Western Maryland, is shooting his cuffs in the air. The ghost of Jack Kent Cooke looks pretty happy, too.

That's about it.

So, aside from those with a vested interest, no one with any sense believes that the main reason we're trying to get slots here is to save Maryland's storied horse racing industry.

You've heard the rationale over and over by now: Racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia have slots, they're draining money away from Maryland tracks and we're all gonna shrivel up and die if something isn't done about it, blah, blah, blah.

A lot of people came around to accepting slots as a necessary evil because of that argument.

But lately I've been hearing things -- that maybe slots are just an unnecessary evil.

The closer we get to actually having slots among us, the more cynical people seem to be. And you know what? That's a good thing. Don't be ashamed of your cynicism. No one can live to middle age in America and not become a cynic -- not without the use of prescription medication, anyway.

Let me ask another question: How many of you think slots are needed to make up for Maryland's budget deficit?

Well, now, I see a few more hands shooting up around the room. You people voted for Bob Ehrlich for governor, right? In fact, one of you people is Bob Ehrlich. The rest of you are from Arbutus.

That's cool. Your vote counts.

But a follow-up, if I may: How many of you think Maryland's budget deficit is the result of a long-term systemic problem that won't go away unless we bring about 18,000 slot machines -- that's what the racing industry apparently wants, for starters -- into this fine state?

I don't see a lot of hands reaching for the ceiling in ready agreement.

So, let me ask: How many think the current "budget crisis" is the result of a downward economic trend and that it's just being used as another excuse to bring slot machines into Maryland to make fat cats fatter?

There we go. Lots of clean fingernails. Very good, class.

I mean, think about it: If you're a lobbyist trying to persuade the Maryland legislature to approve slot-machine gambling here, the budget deficit is a beautiful thing that blossomed at just the right time.

Getting slots to save racetracks -- it sounded good, but that argument did not have legs. A lot of people think the racing industry is doomed and that inept management and an aging customer base have more to do with its demise than anything else.

Slots-as-budget-fixer travels a lot better -- a simple answer to a complex problem, and we like those.

So confident is he of its approval that Bobby Governor already has listed about $400 million in revenue from it in his budget plan.

This makes slots sound like a downright fiscally responsible thing to do. It's not a tax on the poor, it's not a seedy "entertainment" being promoted by all kinds of greedy interests -- it's a downright civic-spirited crusade to right the good ship Maryland.

The budget deficit is the gambling industry's Trojan horse to get slots in Maryland. A budget deficit doesn't last forever, but slots will. Once they're here, they stay. Politicians will get used to relying on them as a source of revenue -- just like the already-everywhere Lottery -- and casino gambling will become part of the culture of this state.

Count on it.

If the state is going to get into this dirty business, it should embrace slots as part of its long- established and successful legal gambling agency, run the operation itself and take a bigger piece of the pie. Why share it with carpetbaggers and other middlemen?

Of course, such an outside-the-box, common-sense idea would have to be embraced by the politicians who run this state. And that would take big-thinking and extraordinary courage in the face of hardball, well-financed lobbying by gambling interests and our single-minded new governor.

Let me see some hands: How many believe such courage and big-think rules the day in this state?

Uh, huh. That's what I thought.

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