Slots prey on weakest, foes warn Assembly

At packed House hearing, backers also weigh in and stress need for revenue

General Assembly

March 24, 2004|By Howard Libit and Greg Garland | Howard Libit and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Expanded gambling will prey on Maryland's poor and most vulnerable citizens, threatening catastrophe for some of the state's most economically depressed communities, slot machine opponents warned a House committee yesterday.

But slots supporters argued that both public schools and the horse racing industry desperately need the additional revenue from expanded gambling, as Marylanders' dollars are now paying for them in Delaware and West Virginia.

As hundreds of opponents filled the hallways of the Lowe House Office Building and stood in line for hours to try to enter the packed hearing room, such prominent Maryland leaders as U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan told delegates that gambling is the wrong path for the state's future.

"Isn't it fair that all of us who receive these services from the state pay a moderate increase in taxes or fees?" Curran said. "Why have those who are losing all of their assets pay for all of the benefits you and I are getting from state government?"

Curran noted that when he turned to Atlantic City, N.J., to study the effects of expanded gambling, he learned that the biggest growth industry there is pawn shops - which increased from two to more than 100.

"The costs outweigh the benefits," he said.

Proponents of slots said residents are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year on gambling.

"We get the problems. Delaware and West Virginia get the money," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring a plan to permit slot machines at the state's racetracks.

$800 million a year

The governor - who did not testify yesterday but might next week - has said the slots measure is crucial to pay for promised spending increases for public education, and analysts say his plan could bring in more than $800 million a year.

But Gilchrest, one of the state's leading Republicans, said gambling is the easy - and wrong - route to take, suggesting that a House Democratic tax plan "needs some legitimate debate and discussion."

"This is not a partisan issue. I am not breaking with the party," Gilchrest insisted. Nevertheless, he asked, "if gambling constitutes an economic strategy, why wasn't it used in the Great Depression?"

Eastern Shore

The twisting debate over whether to permit slot machine facilities on the Eastern Shore also re-emerged in the House hearing. Owner William Rickman Jr. made another pitch for his Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City to be permitted to have slot machines, pointing to votes this month from the Worcester County Council and the town councils of Berlin and Pocomoke City backing a referendum on expanded gambling.

"It is not right that Ocean Downs should be excluded," Rickman said, winning support from Davis to amend the racetrack plan to include his track. "I believe the inclusion at racetracks is the proper venue."

Ocean City's elected officials testified against having slots at that track, fearing that tourism dollars will be spent on gambling rather than on restaurants and other activities.

Yesterday's lengthy hearing was the first on slots this year before the House Ways and Means Committee. That's the panel that killed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots proposal last year and then spent the summer and fall studying expanded gambling possibilities in Maryland.

A plan passed last month by the Senate - an amended version of the governor's proposal that permits 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three non-track locations - will not have a hearing until Tuesday, the first day that House committees start to consider Senate bills.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the committee, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have both promised that if a bill is to be passed, it will be substantially different from what was passed by the Senate.

Busch has pushed the idea of state-owned gambling facilities operated by private companies, rather than giving slots licenses to track owners.

The bills up for consideration yesterday included everything from a constitutional amendment prohibiting expanded gambling to the creation of full-scale casinos in Maryland.

Many veterans representing the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars lobbied the committee to permit their groups to have up to five slot machines each in their halls. Only the halls in eight Eastern Shore counties are now allowed slots, with half the profits going to local charities.

Who will play

One measure that inadvertently highlighted the target audience for expanded gambling was a proposed limit on who would be permitted to gamble.

The bill - from Del. John G. Trueschler, a Baltimore County Republican - would prohibit Marylanders from entering slot machines facilities if they owe child-support payments or past-due taxes, receive Medicaid or other public assistance, or have declared bankruptcy within the past five years.

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