Obscene greed revives slots

January 21, 2003|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IN POLITICS as in life, what goes around, in fact, does eventually come around. Case in point: Slots.

Exactly 40 years ago, the General Assembly outlawed slot machines in Maryland because of their corrupting influence in the four Southern Maryland counties where they were legal.

You guessed it, right up front. They're back - with a predatory vengeance and a public display of greed that would embarrass hogs in slop.

But while they were gone, slots were never truly forgotten. They were granted a limited reprieve, as a 1986 campaign gift, by gubernatorial candidate William Donald Schaefer.

In the bad old days of 1962, sanitizing Southern Maryland of slot machines was the centerpiece of the gubernatorial campaign. In that year, a brash unknown candidate, David Hume of Charles County - the son-in-law of zillionaire industrialist Cyrus Eaton - ran third in the Democratic primary with 119,000 votes. But Mr. Hume managed to extract from the winner, incumbent Gov. J. Millard Tawes, a pledge that, in exchange for Mr. Hume's endorsement, Mr. Tawes would abolish slots where they operated - in Charles, St. Mary's, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.

Mr. Tawes delivered on his promise. The legislation to eliminate slots consumed the 1963 Assembly, delayed in its work by charges of bribery, payoffs and a grand jury investigation. But in the end, as slots barons skulked the hallways and glared down from galleries, lawmakers voted to purge Maryland of one-armed bandits, then the economic lifeblood of Southern Maryland.

Fast forward to the 1986 campaign. Mr. Schaefer pledged to reinstate slots in the Eastern Shore beer halls of fraternal and veterans' organizations after his primary opponent, then-Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, had ruled them illegal.

They've been back for nearly 16 years, largely out of view and unregulated, their proceeds supposedly supporting Little League teams and other alleged good deeds and only God knows what (and who) else.

Later in his reign as governor, Mr. Schaefer became so concerned that slots were out of control on the Eastern Shore that he ordered an investigation into the suspected detours of their proceeds. But the gumshoes were unable to follow the money. They gave up with the report that there was no way to regulate slots or to determine the economic trail of the machines' profits.

Undeterred, nonetheless, Mr. Schaefer, again as governor, issued an executive order that, among other things, asked a 17-member task force to assess "the potential of realizing state revenues through taxation of [the] gambling process" and to "explore mechanisms for collecting revenues from the gambling industry."

So now Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., viewing his election victory as a mandate for slots, wants to legalize the machines as a way of solving the budget mess he's been handed as well as to help resuscitate struggling racetracks.

Mr. Ehrlich wants to install 10,000 slot machines at four tracks - Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and a future track in Cumberland. The racing industry, which is at odds with itself, has proposed 18,000 machines at five tracks, including Ocean Downs.

Greed, like pregnancy, will out. Racing interests see sudden riches that have nothing to do with racing. African-Americans want a piece of the action. Casino interests want the whole deal. Hotels and bars ogle profits in having slots as part of their hospitality. Large-scale developers envision pots of gold.

Yet nowhere have Mr. Ehrlich or the proponents of slots entertained two key considerations.

First, slots - arguably even at tracks - could return Maryland to its backwater days of Southern Maryland's corrupt cops, unwanted riff-raff, crime rate statistics off the charts and addicted gamblers dumping a week's pay into the bottomless maw of rigged machines. Pimlico, for example, is among the poorest, most crime-ridden and drug-infested neighborhoods of Baltimore.

Second, slots will not help horse racing, an industry that is on life support, if not already dead. The people who travel to Delaware or West Virginia to play slots couldn't care a fig whether horses or donkeys are running and probably wouldn't know the difference anyway. Slots will benefit only track owners, not racing.

With so many competing interests and so many money-grubbing hands in the tambourine, greed and avarice might actually save Maryland from itself by killing or delaying legislation. To wit, Mr. Ehrlich might have to find a legitimate way of dealing with the deficit.

Frank A. DeFilippo, press secretary to former Gov. Marvin Mandel, has been writing about Maryland politics for 40 years.

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