Making the state a slots offer it can't refuse

January 29, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I WILL GLADLY be slot machine czar for the state of Maryland. I am throwing my hat in the ring - my pants, too. Take my life - please. I would like to be the man who walks into Maryland's future slot machine emporiums, shoots his French cuffs and struts around like some Vegas casino mogul, greeting the customers and making sure Pat Sajak has a fresh drink when he stops by from his home in Severna Park to play the slots version of Wheel of Fortune.

Somebody has to do it. Joe Pesci isn't available, and my guidance counselor says I owe community service hours. So here I am.

I know - I'm not an octogenarian yet, and I've never been indicted, not even audited.

But I have a lot to offer. My pinky is feeling good, and I really feel like I can help this ball club.

So, with this column, I am announcing my availability for the job. I will work cheap and always present myself respectfully to the customers and cocktail waitresses.

All I need are some new gabardine suits, a pinky ring, a manicure, a spunky cut from Sartori & Company of Mount Washington and a bodyguard named Cheech.

I'll look like a million bucks, but I won't be making that much.

I'll be a state employee, working for Buddy Roogow, the affable state lottery chief, and I'll be pulling down an unremarkable state salary and benefits.

In fact, I'm willing to take a cut in pay just to be The Man! To be called "Mr. R" and to have a job where I can wear French cuffs and not have to carry trays out of a kitchen - that would be a dream.

Why this sudden willingness to eschew my present position for the depressing, smoke-filled world of gambling joints?

I'm just putting my money where my mouth has been.

I've been a fairly loud advocate of state-owned and -operated slots palaces.

Read my lips: I think the state should build and own slot emporiums and staff them with state employees. On this, I'm with Michael Busch, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Surveys show the majority of Marylanders favor the legalization of "video lottery gaming," which is no surprise since, the way the debate has been disingenuously framed in the state, saying you favor slots is pretty much like saying you oppose taxes.

So we are probably going to get slots.

And while more gambling strikes me as creepy business, I am not going to stand in the way of people playing slots. You won't see me holding up the Bible outside racinos, trying to persuade old ladies to take their coin buckets home and save their money for their prescription medication. You won't see me preaching to tourists determined to blow their hard-earned vacation money on one-armed bandits.

I'd rather be the guy who greets them all at the door with coupons for free daiquiris.

So, if we must have slots, let's not blow the chance to have the state, instead of gambling corporations, run and profit from these places.

Who needs the middlemen?

I mean, what are we talking about here? This isn't biogenetics!

You employ Smart Growth thinking and renovate an old industrial building somewhere - the old National and Gunther brewery plants, for instance, east of Canton and not far from Interstate 95 - and you outfit it with a few thousand electronic devices that are programmed for a certain payoff and take. The state lottery now does a pretty good job running, for one thing, a $7.5 million-a-week Keno operation. You're telling me the lottery couldn't run gambling dens with slot machines? What's the difference?

We don't need no stinkin' Harrah's!

And if we want to give some of the proceeds from slots to the racetracks to fatten purses and subsidize track improvements, fine. (I think night racing at the tracks and a big off-track betting parlor in downtown Baltimore would do just as much to help the Maryland thoroughbred industry.)

But don't tell me we have to have slot emporiums at racetracks to catch the crossover business. There's not going to be much. Think about the people you know who love slot machines - do they play the horses, too? A legislative committee has concluded that "the relationship between video lottery gaming and horse racing is tenuous at best."

They got that right.

So let's get on with this - three, maybe four slots emporiums at strategic locations that I can get to easily in a staff-driven limousine. (I forgot to mention the limousine part earlier.)

Why privatize from the start something that will be more profitable as a publicly owned operation in the long term?

That's what I'm betting on - more money to the state from a state-run operation.

Buddy, drinks are on the house!

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