Sucker play

March 27, 2003

IF MARYLAND legislators legalize slot machines, they'll be succumbing to what experts call the crack cocaine of gambling, a get-rich-quick impulse afflicting governments as well as individuals.

The General Assembly should avoid an addictive revenue-raising tool that damages people in exchange for new income that hasn't saved casino states from deficits.

The slots proposal pending in Annapolis doesn't figure to do better for Maryland.

An economic analysis of the various legislative proposals rushed before the General Assembly by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and later revised by the state Senate suggests the only clear winners will be the racetrack owners where the machines would be installed. The study was done by Robert E. Carpenter, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County economist.

States fare poorly with slots, says University of Illinois Professor John Warren Kindt, because the cumulative social and economic costs can exceed revenue - by as much as $3 for every $1 collected for education or road construction or deficit reduction.

And the human costs are high.

Suicide, embezzlement, lost productivity and various forms of domestic abuse are common in the lives of compulsive gamblers, an estimated 71,000 of whom live in Maryland. They're costing the economy an estimated $29 million a year without slots.

It has always been true, moreover, that gambling's burden falls most heavily on those who can least afford it. A University of Buffalo study shows that gambling among the poor is three times that among the more affluent. And the current bill would put one of the four slots venues at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, adjacent to a very poor city neighborhood.

Nor can Maryland be confident that the new revenue will come, as some predict, largely from out-of-state players. In New Orleans, a study by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board showed that only 7 percent of $304 million wagered in one recent year came from out-of-towners.

The overall impact of slots on a local community is hardly encouraging, either. Bankruptcy in casino communities goes up 18 to 42 percent, according to an American Banking Industry study in New Jersey.

Slots, says Mr. Kindt, hurt surrounding businesses because money that might have been spent for dining out, clothing or other entertainment pours into the mesmerizing push-button bandits.

Maryland's course should be clear. It should protect businesses and families from unnecessary misery. And it should find a more responsible way to pay for roads and bridges and public education. Slots may look like a solution, but they're really a huge problem.

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