Loser's game

February 26, 2004

IF LEGAL slot machines serve the common good - if only by bringing in new state revenue - why not allow them everywhere in Maryland? Even ardent slots proponents don't make this case, not least because they seek to control a limited number of very valuable licenses. Plus, too many social problems might result. And anyway, many communities just don't want slots nearby.

Thus when a state Senate committee this week began concocting the slots soup, its cooking session turned on how to apportion the final dish. It was a sloppy affair even for Annapolis, and that was just the small part held in public - a bad sign for Marylanders rarely well served by backroom deals.

The committee's final recipe - now headed for a Senate floor vote - allows slots at three racetracks and three non-track sites, all in or near black communities or rural areas.

Baltimore might end up with two such casinos; Prince George's County could have one, and another just over its border in Laurel; rural Allegany, Cecil and Dorchester counties each could get one. In telling contrast, Ocean City and white, well-off suburban communities - particularly in Howard and Baltimore counties - were saved (for now) from slots.

Those who don't want slots near their communities tend to fear the traffic, other infrastructure burdens and change in atmosphere that slots parlors would bring. They also know that most casinos draw heavily from areas within a 35-mile radius and thus the rate of gambling addiction - and all the attendant social and legal problems - is apt to be much higher nearby.

Less discussed is how slots drain nearby communities economically. Yes, these parlors may provide some initial construction spending and some jobs. And depending on their location, they may lure some spending by visitors from outside their communities. But even under the rosiest of economic predictions, hundreds of millions of dollars in slots revenue would be diverted from current spending by Marylanders on eating out, other amusements and buying goods - a robbing of Peter to pay Paul that would disproportionately cannibalize and cut jobs at nearby restaurants and retailers.

That's been the case almost everywhere slots have arrived. Atlantic City's casinos may be packed, but the number of its non-casino restaurants fell sharply with gambling. Reports from Illinois, Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota and elsewhere document drops in retail sales after the arrival of slots. This makes sense: If you're losing money on slots, you can't spend it elsewhere. So in essence, the state will be financing schools statewide with cash (and jobs) disproportionately siphoned from certain local economies.

Slots have been called a stupidity tax, a levy on those willing to put their money into a game in which the odds are stacked against them. The black and rural communities now targeted for slots should also realize they may not be an economic boon but another kind of loser's game.

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