State won't be the one hitting jackpot under latest slots plan

This Just In...

March 28, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

LOOK, I'M no economics professor, but Robert E. Carpenter is. He's at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He's looked at this miserable slot machine thing and concluded that Bobby Slots, the governor, and Mike Miller, Senate-President-Too-Long, want to give too much of the proceeds to racetrack owners while shortchanging taxpayers.

The professor estimates that the latest proposal would give the track owners about $650 million more than they really need in motivation to turn their facilities into the massive, glittery "racinos" that adorn the governor's spectacular vision of the Next Maryland. (The Next Maryland: four racetrack casinos and 4 million panhandlers.)

If we are to legalize slots in this state, why are we giving away all this money?

I know car salesmen with fake neckties who can work better deals. So can my father-in-law, a cash-and-carry guy who came to this country with $100 and a wooden suitcase. (Years ago, he used to put on the sorriest clothes he could find, go to the Christmas tree lot down the street, with his two scrawny kids in tow, and poor-mouth his way into a discount on a blue spruce.)

Look, I'm no phrase-coiner, but a couple of weeks ago I came up with a new name for Baltimore because of all the money the city throws at highly paid consultants and out-of-town experts: Yahoo City.

I'm thinking this is the Yahoo State.

Of course, it wasn't always like this.

Just a couple of months ago, Professor Carpenter says, the governor had a much better slots scheme - 64 percent of the proceeds to the state, about 25 percent to the tracks, with the tracks coughing up a $150 million fee to get in the racino biz.

But the tracks got pouty and greedy, and Bobby Slots agreed to give the tracks about 44 percent and the state a slightly smaller piece of the action. (The Senate wants to give the tracks 39 percent now.)

Professor Carpenter says the governor should have stuck to his first proposal because it "would have allowed the casinos to make plenty of money" and left the state with a more significant take.

Look, I'm no expert on slots and how you divide up the big pile of coin that comes of blue-haired women sitting on stools all day feeding one-armed bandits.

I'm not a "gaming expert."

I'm not a lobbyist.

I don't cut the governor's hair.

But if I cut the governor's hair, I'd tell him, first, to keep a little on the sides - his hair is trimmed too high above the ears, in the old Hess Shoes barbershop style - and I'd tell him to have the state own all the slot machines outright.

Of course, I already floated that idea in this column - poured it into the saucer to see if the cat licked it up, if you know what I mean - but ... no takers.

Look, I'm no cunning Canadian, but I like what they're doing up there: They figured the government could make a lot more money if it owned casinos and just paid experts from Las Vegas - guys who look like Joe Pesci, essentially - to manage them. So that's what they did. The province of Ontario struck a deal with a blue-chip Vegas company to manage Casino Windsor. And guess what the Vegas company, Park Place Entertainment, gets for doing that?

It gets 2.74 percent of the gross, plus 5 percent of the net. That's it. The rest goes to the province.

Look, I'm no CPA, but I know one named Myron, and even he would agree that if the Yahoo State owned 10,000 slot machines and set them up - in, say, gloriously refurbished space leased from the racetracks - we would still reap a lot more revenue in the long run. The state could throw some money into racetrack purses - truly help the racetrack industry - and keep the rest for education.

The Canadians think we're silly for not trying to do the same thing.

You have to admit, it makes a lot of sense. We wouldn't have this grotesque maneuvering in Annapolis, and a new governor bogged down with such an unseemly issue in his first few months in office.

One more thing:

I'm not the governor of Massachusetts, but Mitt Romney is. He proposed last month that, instead of the Bay State legalizing slots at racetracks, the neighboring states of Connecticut and Rhode Island, which have casinos and slot emporiums, respectively, pay Massachusetts millions of dollars annually to stay out of the same racket.

Now that's thinking outside the box!

I'm not the governor of Maryland, but if I was, I'd propose the same thing with the states of Delaware and West Virginia. I'd negotiate a steady flow of cash off the slots at Dover and Charles Town, drop my slots plan, and put an end to this tawdry affair. Then I'd go get a nice haircut.

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