The trough

November 28, 2003

WHAT'S THAT SOUND in Annapolis? With the opening of the next General Assembly session just seven weeks away, it's hoofbeats -- of thirsty horses rushing to jockey for position at the trough.

It now brims with all sorts of potential taxes, profits, contracts and deals that would result if the state legalizes slot machines. Possibly more than a billion dollars a year is in play, an unprecedented payoff that could be divvied up in endless ways.

There's no end to the interests vying with each other -- with the happy aid of the Annapolis lobbying corps, for whom gambling serves as a rich employment act. "They just doubled my fee," one lobbyist matter-of-factly confided before the last meeting of the House's gambling task force this week. It's likely not his last raise.

The most recent steed to gallop in is the Maryland Stadium Authority, whose chairman floated the idea of building a "marquee" race track cum slots casino by downtown Baltimore's stadiums, which of course MSA would build. We oppose slots, particularly in Baltimore; gambling wouldn't enhance the Inner Harbor. But if the state opts for slots, building and owning state parlors likely is the most profitable route.

So let's add that to the crowded field already lining up to drink:

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants slots revenue -- perhaps more than $500 million a year -- to solve the state's structural deficit without new taxes.

The state's racetrack owners want to house the slots to save their troubled industry and, not incidentally, walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars.

The state's horse breeders want $70 million for bigger race purses, plus $20 million in bonuses for Maryland-bred horses.

The Maryland State Fair wants to house and live off slots, instead of having to stage more than 200 other events a year.

Cities with potential sites, like Baltimore, and their communities, like Pimlico, expect to be cut in on any deal.

Baltimore's strapped Compulsive Gambling Center, the nation's oldest such treatment center on the East Coast, is lobbying for several million dollars to be diverted for treating pathological gamblers.

Even a respected academic has come before the House task force to note that, naturally, the state would have to fund much more research on gambling's impact.

That's just a short list.

With slots, the gathering hoofbeats would become a permanent river of thirsty horses, changing Maryland politics for the worse. Gambling puts so much money in the trough that it's already swamping all else in Annapolis. If legalized, look for that to become the routine state of the state.

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