A prominent anti-gambling group is holding its national conference in Maryland this month because it views the state as a crucial battleground in its fight to stop the spread of gambling nationwide.
The National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion meeting, set for Sept. 26 and 27 in Linthicum, comes at a time when legislators are studying whether the state should legalize slot machine gambling.
"We usually go where there's a battle and obviously Maryland is a pivotal state," said the Rev. Thomas A. Grey of Rockford, Ill., the coalition's executive director. "We try to get as close to the front lines as we can, where the battle is the most heated."
He said his group will bring in academic experts, researchers and others to talk about the social costs of legalized gambling.
Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland, which is host of the conference, said she sees the event as an opportunity to educate the public, and legislators, about the dangers of expanding legalized gambling.
"We hope for it to be a forum for people who want to learn more about the negative social and economic impacts of gambling," Knickelbein said.
Grey paid several visits to the state during this year's legislative session as he helped rally anti-gambling forces to defeat slots legislation that was championed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
The bill would have allowed 3,500 slot machines at each of three Central Maryland racetracks -- Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway. Another 1,000 machines would have been permitted at a track to be built in Allegany County.
Grey said that anti-gambling activists expect to face different challenges in the fight over slots during next year's legislative session, given House Speaker Michael E. Busch's evolving position on the issue.
The Anne Arundel Democrat was a key opponent of Ehrlich's slots-at-tracks-only bill. But since the session's end, he has talked about alternative slots plans that he suggests could generate more money for the state treasury -- including possibly setting up state-owned slots casinos.
Busch said he has not changed his view that slots are bad for Maryland. But, he said, if slots become inevitable the state needs to ensure that it gets the best possible deal for taxpayers.
Grey said that his group would vigorously oppose any effort to bring slots to Maryland, whether at state-owned facilities, racetracks or elsewhere. He questioned Busch's approach.
"He's gone from looking at the impact on Maryland citizens to who gets the money," Grey said. "He's saying, `Let's just stick the needle directly into our arm.' We're saying that it's an addictive product, and that government ought not to be in the business of making losers of its citizens."
Grey said he is disappointed that the House Ways & Means Committee, which is holding hearings to study the slots issue, has not invited experts who can talk about the social costs of gambling.
"They are avoiding looking at the social costs of gambling and are focusing on looking at the money side and the benefits," he said.
Grey said he expects about 150 people at the conference at the Holiday Inn Airport Hotel, including anti-gambling activists from 30 to 40 states.
"These are activists that pay their own way," Grey said. "They're not being sent by someone."
The keynote speaker for the conference opening day will be Richard C. Leone, president of the Century Fund, a public policy research foundation based in New York City.
Leone was a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which spent two years examining the spread of legalized gambling. It issued a report in 1999 that included 70 recommendations for changes in gambling policies.
Leone has been sharply critical of state governments for rushing into gambling as a way to raise revenue without fully exploring the social impact.
The conference also will feature a "Maryland Victory 2003" forum Sept. 26 to review strategies used in this year's slots battle and plan for the expected battle over slots next year, Knickelbein said.