Hooked on slots

January 28, 2004

OVER THE LAST decade, legalized gambling has spread across America like kudzu, the rapidly growing Asian vine that overtakes virtually all other vegetation. By now, the pattern is very predictable: Once states allow gambling, they quickly become hooked on its revenues and can't resist allowing the gaming to expand beyond its original toehold.

Consider the Maryland Lottery, which began 30 years ago with one game reaping a few million dollars for the state and which last year offered 10 games or prizes that now yield about $500 million a year - the third-largest revenue source for the state's general fund budget. Similarly, even before legal slot machines have become a reality in Maryland, they're already rapidly expanding - at least if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has his way.

At the start of the 2003 General Assembly session this time last year, the governor concocted an ill-conceived slots plan that would have put 11,500 machines at four Maryland racetracks. With that plan's defeat in the legislature and concerns mounting during the past year over a potential giveaway to track owners, Mr. Ehrlich this week came back to legislature with a plan for - surprise! - 11,500 machines at the same four tracks and 4,000 more at two unspecified, non-track sites along Interstate 95.

That's an astonishing 35 percent jump in the number of slot machines proposed for the state. At the outset, 15,500 video lottery terminals would make Maryland the East Coast's top state behind only New Jersey in terms of the number of these machines, and the seventh-ranked state nationally. That's quite an odd sort of down-market distinction for a state whose residents are among the nation's wealthiest and the world's best-educated and whose economic prospects - particularly in high-tech, biotech and defense industries - have few equals.

But when it comes to gambling, proponents' answers almost always involve more. Faced with the tough political task of choosing among competing interests - track owners, casino operators, potential minority investors - Mr. Ehrlich decided to allow each and every one a potential shot at grabbing some of the action. Even worse, Mr. Ehrlich is proposing that competing bids for the two non-track slots parlors be decided by a commission composed largely of his appointees - thereby making it a sound bet that political connections would be a key factor in doling out that lucre.

By contrast, the report of a House subcommittee studying slots - to be finalized later this week - appears downright responsible: It doesn't endorse legal slots but says if the state does allow the machines, then all the parlors should be built and owned by the state. In other words, no handouts - and more revenues for Maryland.

We've long maintained that the state should balance its budget without getting hooked on slots. The governor's expansion of his proposal just foreshadows the constant pressures to expand gambling that will quickly become a fact of life in Maryland if slots are approved.

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