Political milk

March 21, 2004

IF MONEY is the milk of politics, the gambling industry is a veritable dairy. As state after state legalized gambling in the 1990s, political cups overflowed with gambling money. To a great degree, the industry gets what it wants - government-granted monopolies on huge revenue streams - by serving as a big and reliable source of campaign funds.

In Maryland, according to a recent study by Common Cause, gambling interests have given almost $700,000 to politicians during the five years prior to January. The actual amount is certainly much higher because donor disclosure is limited.

That may not seem like much, but the measure of its weight is the frosty Annapolis reception to a proposed ban on such gifts. A bill to that effect last year didn't even make it out of the House committee chaired by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the pro-slots Montgomery County Democrat who has received more than $20,000 from gambling interests, according to Common Cause. This year, Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, another Montgomery Democrat, fears his bill will die again.

A ban on donations from gambling interests makes sense. If you hope slots are shot down again this year - very much our position - then this ban might weaken the likely continuing campaign for gambling. Even if you want slots, a ban might lessen the inevitable pressures to expand gambling hours, games, locales and firms' take - reducing the possibility of every legislative session being devoted to gambling matters.

At a hearing last week in Annapolis, no legislator showed up to speak against the ban. Who's so dumb as to display his own greed? But watch closely this bill's fate.

Along those lines, you're apt to hear some free-speech arguments about the gambling industry's right to donate like any other group. But by its very nature, gambling is different from other special interests, as courts have found in upholding similar bans in New Jersey and Louisiana.

In the first place, gambling firms - unlike, say, developers or doctors - compete for exclusive state franchises. Moreover, we've already had portents of the sorts of problems that tend to stem from gambling money: Federal investigators are asking questions about more than $200,000 donated by track owner Joseph A. De Francis to a national committee led by state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and about fund raising by Richard E. Hug, a University System of Maryland regent, for a pro-slots group whose ties he has refused to reveal.

Banning political contributions from gambling interests is a no-brainer - whether gambling comes to Maryland or not. But, of course, there's something about all that political milk that addles political brains everywhere.

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