License to gamble would rob `racinos' of license to steal

March 25, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

YOU NEED a license to fish for gar, a license to trap nutria, a license to install toilets -- why not a license to gamble? I think we all agree that gambling should only be for prequalified suckers in good financial standing. I'm talking sober, responsible adults who never squander money. Guys named Furlong, women named Felicity. People in substantial shoes.

If we're going to have what the governor, casino companies and horse racing interests want in this state -- 15,500 slot machines, about one for every 350 Marylanders -- then let's issue a swipe-card so that only those who can afford to gamble away their money do so.

You like?

I'm kind of warming up to this idea.

Maybe it's a little on the Big Brother side of things -- restricting the playing of slots to, say, those who've avoided Chapter 7 -- but I can live with it. In fact, this strikes me as guilt relief for those who know they will never ever become regular patrons of the state's slots palaces and racinos while the mildly or fully desperate do. My friends, we'll all sleep better knowing that guys who skip their child support payments aren't allowed to waste their kids' lunch money on video slots to keep Joe De Francis in mousse.

This idea of issuing permits or licenses is contained in one of several legislative measures in Annapolis dealing with slots. You can look it up -- House Bill 1013, sponsored by John Trueschler, a Republican delegate from Baltimore County, who apparently didn't have time to talk to me yesterday. But that's OK.

Trueschler's bill would prohibit the following Marylanders from entering a slots joint:

Career offenders "as defined by regulations adopted by the regulatory authority that oversees gambling."

Anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude or illegal gambling.

Anyone who owes child support, undisputed state taxes or unemployment insurance; anyone who has declared bankruptcy in the last five years; and anyone who receives Medicaid or similar public assistance.

These people would not get a "gaming card." (The word "gaming" appears more and more in official slotspeak, the state having adopted a term the casino lobbyists prefer to "gambling.")

Everyone else would get a card in order to enter a joint with 1,000 or more slots.

The card would have your picture, your name, address and birth date.

You'd walk up to a slots parlor, and you'd swipe the card on a machine connected to a databank of financially challenged persons. If the computer says you're OK to gamble -- no outstanding warrants, no hungry children -- then you'd be allowed to shoot your cuffs and go crazy like Pete Rose all over the place.

This is high-minded legislation, and I want y'all to put your hands together for Delegate Trueschler's effort to keep the state of Maryland from eating its own troubled citizens.

Deadbeats from other states might come here and gamble money better spent on child support and settling debts, but we're going to make sure our fellow citizens don't pour their back taxes into slots.

It sounds like a great idea -- except that it would ruin a good thing.

State analysts who studied this legislation say revenues from slots would "decrease substantially" if we established a gambling license and prohibited the financially challenged from entering racinos.

"Due to the exclusion provisions of this bill, an estimated 1.1 million residents or more could be excluded from gaming facilities," the analysis said. That estimate is based on the following:

There were 161,174 nonbusiness bankruptcy filings in Maryland from 1999 to 2003, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Maryland has 501,000 adults receiving Medicaid, the federal- and state-funded health insurance program for the poor.

The state comptroller says there were 228,000 citizens who owed undisputed taxes in fiscal 2003.

The Child Support Enforcement Administration reported 188,644 people in arrears on their obligations last year.

There may be some overlap in these numbers -- people who owe child support might be among the bankruptcy filings -- but still, the point is made: We are talking about eliminating a substantial number of Marylanders from the betting pool -- for their own good and for the good of the state.

But let's be honest -- the financially challenged are the ones most easily enticed into gambling, the ones the gambling industry counts on, the ones that pro-slots politicians need to make this cynical, tax-the-poor scheme work.

Hey, it is what it is.

We'll never see slots twinned with gambling licensure in this state. Forget about it. It's totally incompatible with the motivations of the casino companies and their legislative lackeys -- to extract the most amount of money from those most willing to stand at the machines, day after day, and make sucker bet after sucker bet.

Ciao, baby. I'm off to get my fishing license.

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