Prince George's ministers rally against slots bill

Clergy hope to eliminate county as option for slots

General Assembly

March 13, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

More than 35 ministers representing 18,000 families in Prince George's County pressed lawmakers yesterday not to allow slot machines in their communities or in Maryland, saying gambling is not the way to pay for public schools.

"This will create all kinds of destructive behavior within our communities," said the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver of Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro. "Maryland is the Free State, and we need to make sure the state of Maryland is free of slots and free of gambling."

At an Annapolis news conference, the ministers argued that their communities are just as "family friendly" as others that managed to exempt themselves from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling legislation, including the Eastern Shore and Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. They hope to pressure Prince George's delegates to vote against slots legislation and, if the measure passes, to remove the county from the list of jurisdictions eligible for the gambling facilities.

"If ever I want to know what is the sentiment, what is the thinking of the families of Prince George's ... I only need to talk to the clergy," said Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat and slots opponent.

The bill approved last month by the Senate would allow 15,500 slot machines at six locations: three racetracks and three non-track locations. The three non-track locations would only be permitted in three jurisdictions: Baltimore City and Cecil and Prince George's counties. The bill will be discussed this month by the House Ways and Means Committee, which last year killed the governor's gambling proposal.

Gambling opponents argue that the Senate bill relegates most of the slot facilities to predominantly black areas.

"If you look at the demographics of the people of Prince George's County and Baltimore, those are majority African-American," said Weaver, who is also president of the Collective Banking Group Inc., a collection of more than 150 churches. "I think you can draw the conclusion there."

Experts who study gambling say there are several reasons the industry tends to focus on black communities as it looks to expand.

Earl L. Grinols, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said gambling interests consider their target market and the degree of opposition they are likely to encounter in choosing sites.

"They want to go where they believe they will get the most revenues the quickest, with the least opposition," Grinols said. "Delay is costly."

And, he said, delay is more likely if a gambling enterprise tries to build in more affluent, white areas that tend to be better organized and have greater political clout.

He said that people who live in poorer black communities tend to spend disproportionate amounts of their income on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling. So putting slots in those communities taps a market, he said.

Senators who supported the slots legislation insist that their bill did not target minority communities.

Sen. Gloria D. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat, said one of the slots licenses is likely to go to Cecil County, and another is reserved for a racetrack to be built in Allegany County.

She said Laurel Park's location in Anne Arundel County is not heavily minority, and she described Baltimore's Inner Harbor - an expected location for slots - as "international."

"So you have Pimlico and National Harbor, which are both black. I count two black locations and four white ones," Lawlah said. "We are trying to take the race card off the table. We have to be very, very careful, but I don't think you can fairly say all of the slots locations are being put in minority areas."

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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