Slots culture

February 10, 2004

LONG BEFORE legal slot machines might actually arrive in Maryland, can there be any doubt as to the corrosive influence of the gambling industry on the political culture of Annapolis?

Just consider two news items that broke late last week:

Richard E. Hug, appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to serve on the supposedly esteemed University System of Maryland Board of Regents, has been out shilling for slots, hitting up potential donors to contribute to a nonprofit group that plans to spend on a media blitz promoting the governor's slots plan.

Laptoplobbyist.com, a Carroll County firm hired by anti-slots forces to send out a barrage of faxes to state political offices, is accused of having gone in advance to the state Republican Party with an offer to pull out of that campaign for a cool $100,000.

If true, the latter allegation of course would be nothing more than a shakedown scheme, a kind of political blackmail. And as for Mr. Hug's extracurricular fund raising, he is Mr. Ehrlich's longtime finance chairman, and unfortunately his actions may not violate any regulations per se, but they sure are unbecoming for a regent.

One would think that with the state's universities claiming that they're suffering under a tight state budget - so much so that they've had to resort to whopping tuition increases this year and last - Mr. Hug's considerable skills and connections would be fully devoted to drumming up support not for slots but for higher education.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hug apparently is distracted from tackling and solving the growing unaffordability of college for too many worthy Maryland students by trying to deliver licenses worth hundreds of millions of dollars to state racetrack owners.

We don't know where the money-politics that goes hand in hand with slots will end, but experience in other states indicates there's vast potential for full-fledged scandal. Indeed, Maryland's state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller, is already under FBI investigation as a result of $225,000 given by companies controlled by racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis to a national campaign committee that Mr. Miller chairs.

Then there's the $2.5 million that Annapolis lobbyists took in last year to push for slots. Anyone care to wager that slots bring in even more money for the state lobbying corps this year? They'd be the only winners.

In running for governor in 2002, one of Mr. Ehrlich's more persuasive arguments was that something fundamental was deeply wrong in Annapolis, a culture of corruption he attributed to decades of Democratic Party rule. With his slots drive, Mr. Ehrlich indeed is changing the State House culture - but apparently for the worse.

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