Again say no

January 19, 2004

THE LAST BROAD expansion of legalized gambling across America came with the financial pressures on states in the recession of the early 1990s. Thus, the gaming industry, as it dubs itself, saw glitter in the nation's sharp economic downturn the last few years.

But surprisingly, across the nation last year, almost all legislative or electoral proposals to expand gambling at the state or local level were rejected - with 42 of 45 such initiatives failing.

In Maryland, there has been no popular vote on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign to legalize slot machines. The House of Delegates defeated his bill a year ago, while The Sun's Maryland Poll this month found that a slim majority of voters support slots.

Now, with the opening of this year's legislative session last week, Mr. Ehrlich is set to return with a tweaked version of his slots bill. As we have argued repeatedly, legislators have more than enough reasons to again say no.

There's only one good argument for bringing slots to Maryland: the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues it might yield. But even under the rosiest projections, slots alone wouldn't provide enough cash to bridge the state's long-term structural deficit.

Raising the state sales tax a penny might bring in just about as much money. The Sun poll found that two-thirds of voters would support that tax increase if the money were to go to schools. Moreover, a sales tax hike wouldn't entail gambling's considerable costs.

Put simply, we believe gambling's not worth it:

Legalization would place funding of essential state functions on a volatile foundation. One of the nation's richest states ought to be able to pay for its government.

A big share of gambling revenues - one state agency estimates it at 70 percent - would be reallocated spending, money that would have been spent and taxed in Maryland anyway - likely at a higher sales tax rate than the effective gambling tax rate.

Gambling is an economic development engine if you're desolate Nevada or devastated Atlantic City, but not if you have arguably the world's most educated work force right next door to Washington, the world's biggest high-tech contractor.

No Maryland community is clamoring for a slots casino. Not the state's richest areas, Montgomery and Howard counties. Not its beach and mountain resorts. Not Beltway neighborhoods such as Timonium.

Legal slots would increase the state's rate of addicted and problem gamblers by a couple of percentage points - even more in areas close to the casinos. Putting slots in Baltimore, a city drained by drugs, would be suicidal.

For nearby businesses, in terms of lost productivity and other potential losses, slots mean they can look forward to adding the equivalent of one to three more alcoholics or drug addicts per 100 workers.

The entire state would pay the price of increased crime, bankruptcies, family crises, illnesses and even suicides frequently traced to gambling. Some researchers say such costs entirely offset all gambling revenues.

Once allowed in, gambling interests would exert constant pressure to expand casinos' hours, games and locales - just as the state lottery has ballooned far beyond the scope originally intended.

We could go on. Let's end with this: The easy money of legal gambling almost always ends up dominating and distorting states' political debates and cultures. Of course, anyone who's been following Maryland politics for the last year knows that already.

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