Running slots a logical step for our lottery-loving state

This Just In...

January 22, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I HAVEN'T HEARD a convincing objection to my proposal that the state of Maryland -- rather than the big casino outfits and racetracks -- own and operate slot machines if the General Assembly legalizes them. There being no objection, the motion passes and this meeting is adjourned. Thank you very much. Please dispose of empty pizza boxes on your way out, and place all bottles and cans in the blue recycling bins.

Of course, it's not that easy.

Someone in power, starting with Bobby Governor or maybe state Del. Pete Rawlings, would have to think way outside the hatbox to actually propose that the Maryland Lottery buy several thousand slot machines and set them up in betting parlors all across this oddly shaped state and keep the lion's share of the revenues.

Such an idea runs contrary to the current plan, which essentially brings middlemen and other carpetbaggers into an enterprise that the state could probably run itself. The state has been doing a pretty good job getting people to gamble, I'd say, and it's only business-as-usual thinking that would keep the legislature from putting this whole thing in the capable hands of lottery czar Buddy "I'm Moe Greene!" Roogow.

I've floated this idea a couple of times -- poured it into the saucer to see if the cat licked it up, if you know what I mean -- and one of the few objections came from Jeff Hooke, the investment banker who co-founded a watchdog group called Project $1.5 Billion Recovery.

Rather than see the state get into the slots business itself, Hooke's group advocates that we auction off four licenses to operate slots to the highest bidders. "We peg the value of the licenses at $1.5 billion," says Hooke. "Governments sell cellular phone licenses, oil leases and real estate to the highest bidder. Why should slots be different?"

I like Hooke's idea, but I'm not ready to ditch mine.

The only other opposition was predictable. It came from a public affairs director of a big casino outfit who at first objected to publication of his e-mailed argument, then agreed to it as long as I didn't identify him. I don't know why the insistence on anonymity. But here goes.

"Government ownership [of slots]," Casino Man wrote, "would put the state in the inherently inconsistent roles of owner and regulator and threaten the primary goal underlying an effective casino regulatory model -- ensuring public confidence in the integrity of gaming through strict regulation of the owners/managers of casinos."

Let me stop right here to say, with all sincerity, that the last thing Dan Rodricks wants is to contribute in any way to the undermining of public confidence in slot machines. Dan Rodricks has the utmost respect for the American gambling industry -- and, moreover, Dan Rodricks does not want his legs broken.

"There is also no basis to think that government can effectively compete with commercial casinos in the highly competitive field of casino marketing," Casino Man went on. "How would the public react to millions of public funds being used to entice people to casinos?"

Excuse me, Casino Man. But we already spend millions of dollars annually to entice people to play the lottery in all its forms. What's the difference if we spend more to entice them to play slots?

More from CM: "The few ethical and legal problems that have arisen in the casino industry's history underscore the merits of an independent Gaming Control agency, free from influence of state politics, and the demerits of government ownership which would inevitably inject politics into the business of gaming."

That's fine, except that all the things Casino Man warns about -- the state becoming a promoter, rather than regulator, of gambling; politics getting inappropriately interjected -- have happened. I thought we could neutralize all the tawdry politics of slots by suggesting the state run the show, leaving the middlemen, the lobbyists and carpetbaggers out of the picture.

Casino Man argues that the state and the gambling industry have divergent interests.

Call me crazy, but I saw the interests of the state and those of the casinos as the same -- to attract as many players as you can and extract as much money from them as you can. The state already does -- and will do -- a fine job of that. Who needs the casino guys?

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