Slots in Maryland

Fool's gold

March 21, 2004|By Wayne T. Gilchrest

MARYLAND GOVERNMENT stands at a fork in the road.

One direction - legalized slots - appears to be a shortcut paved in gold, but around the bend that road quickly deteriorates and disappears. The other direction is obviously more difficult, longer, requiring creative and courageous problem-solving. But it is the right direction.

I don't make this statement to initiate a debate about whether there are dire consequences to gambling. Those consequences are real, documented and many. We each make a decision about whether those are consequences we are willing to risk and tolerate in our personal lives. It's an individual choice.

Rather, I make this statement to debate whether gambling should be a solution to our state's fiscal problems. This is a statement about governing toward meeting the critical needs and demands of the public and generating economic development, and why slot machines should not be any part of that process.

More specifically, why is the legalization of thousands of slot machines across our state on the legislative agenda of the General Assembly?

It is argued that it is because we have a budget shortfall, and slots are necessary if education, Medicaid and other programs are to be sufficiently funded. It is argued that it is necessary to save the horse racing industry, that the revenue from slots is needed to further efforts to save the bay, that the state's many transportation needs cannot be met without casinos full of slot machines. And it is argued that Maryland must compete with neighboring states where slots are already legal.

We should be suspicious of these arguments and ask why our elected officials are debating making the critical functions of government dependent on gambling revenues. It is only short-term budgetary salvation. It allows the difficult, often politically sensitive, decisions essential to the long-term good of the state to be put off. There are more appropriate courses of action.

What about setting priorities? What about accountability? What about new ideas?

What will happen the next time the state budget is in crisis if we rely on slots revenues this time? Will gambling in the state be expanded even further?

For example, I will be the first to go to bat for public schools in our state. But why are we talking about slot machines to help fully fund the recommendation of the Thornton Commission before we have seen an acceptable explanation of how millions of dollars earmarked for the Baltimore City schools seemed to vaporize without a trace?

Every corner of the state needs transportation dollars. So can't we prioritize the big projects, delay others, consider tolls, alternative modes to the budget busters? I applaud Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "flush fee" initiative to fund sewage treatment plant upgrades; are such creative solutions out there for other needs?

I understand fully how difficult it is to say no to a legitimate funding request, to terminate a program or tell a constituency to wait until next year, or even later. But it's time in both Washington and Annapolis that we do just that.

We should also be asking whether the debate about the future of slots in Maryland is ignoring (or selectively forgetting) the history of gambling and why it was illegal in the United States for almost 100 years.

First, history tells us that there are no real economic benefits; our elected state officials should be aware of the fundamental economic principles governing gambling activities. A number of business and academic studies of that history (and, significantly, these are studies not funded by the gambling industry) conclude that gambling produces no product and no new wealth and thus makes no real contribution to economic development. It is inherently recessionary. Economist Paul A. Samuelson comes to a critical conclusion. "Although it creates no output," he wrote, "gambling does nevertheless absorb time and resources. When pursued beyond the limits of recreation, where the main purpose after all is to kill time, gambling subtracts from the national income."

Second is the socioeconomic history of gambling activities. Mr. Samuelson and the studies of others conclude that beyond the initial revenue boost from gambling, the social costs overwhelm that benefit. One risk analysis put the cost to taxpayers at $3 for every $1 in new tax revenues.

The social costs are real, but their actual dollar amount will be hidden in the future budgets of state programs once slot machines take hold in Maryland. There are the documented problems of addiction. Problem and pathological gambling affects not only the gambler and his or her family, but also society.

Economically for the state, this means added unemployment and welfare benefits, physical and mental health care, domestic violence costs and child abuse and neglect expenses. This is in addition to the impact of increased bankruptcies and the extra money that would be needed to respond to the crime that inevitably would follow.

The future of Maryland is in our hands. We should not allow slots into our communities in order to permit governing to be easy and expedient just for the moment.

We can choose the right direction for state government. Rather than surrendering the state's financial future to dubious revenue sources, we can meet the current fiscal challenge by using our initiative, ingenuity and intellect and work for a future that we won't come to regret.

Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, represents Maryland's 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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