Reject greed

February 23, 2004

HOW MANY of you want the state of Maryland to license the opening of a slot-machine palace in your neighborhood?

We don't see too many hands.

How about those of you who live on the Eastern Shore or love to go down to the ocean? You want a racino at Ocean City's harness track to complement all the sun and fun?

How about all those in Baltimore? You want two -- a racino at Pimlico and a slots casino right by the Inner Harbor?

That would be the likely outcome of the amended version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's slots bill -- a bill headed for a state Senate committee vote tomorrow and then for possible full Senate consideration.

Legalizing slots anywhere is very poor public policy for Maryland, so the governor's bill was bad enough. But this amended plan, the handiwork of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, is worse.

It's a political slap in the face to the Senate minority whip, well-known gambling foe J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican whose district includes the Ocean Downs track.

It's a terrifically ironic twist in the continuing quest for slots by the governor, who, in pushing for legal gambling, has vowed time and again that he would keep it out of Maryland's family-oriented beach resorts. We wonder, did he believe he was driving this train?

Because, most fundamentally, it's unbounded greed that's really powering the well-financed campaign to bring slots to this state and that can be counted on to exert constant pressure to expand, however many casinos, machines and games might be originally approved.

The slots greed oozes from all quarters, but this 11th-hour move for a state license for 1,000 machines at Ocean Downs is testimony to the extensive political donations and lobbying of one man, William J. Rickman Jr., Ocean Downs' owner.

He can't lose. He's already got slots at a Delaware track. Mr. Ehrlich's original bill gave him 1,000 machines at a new Western Maryland track. The amended bill's 1,000 additional machines at Ocean Downs is a nice layer of icing on an already rich cake.

You might have been thinking that all this slots maneuvering was about how to raise revenues to meet the state's long-term structural deficit. Think again. A year ago, three casinos were proposed. Now it's eight -- and a bill hasn't even been approved yet.

Come tomorrow in the Senate committee, Ocean Downs may be taken out of the slots bill. Or it may be approved, but then removed by the full Senate. Or the House could put it back in. Never mind. The lesson is clear: If slots are legalized, no corner of Maryland is safe from invasion by gambling -- no matter who promises what.

State senators and delegates thus face a choice: They can dance to the tune of this greed or they can serve the public's interest and kill slots before greed becomes a permanent state of affairs for Maryland.

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