Lawmakers say gambling stops here

Anti-slots leaders aim to form coalition to keep devices out of Md., Pa., Va.

April 29, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Anti-gambling leaders from Maryland met yesterday with their Pennsylvania counterparts, hoping to establish a defensive perimeter against the expansion of gambling in the Mid-Atlantic.

"If it passes in Pennsylvania, it's going to pass in Maryland," Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said after a two-hour meeting with lawmakers and activists in the state capitol here. "If we can stop it in Pennsylvania, we can stop it again in Maryland as well."

The activists hope to form a coalition of states comprising Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to keep out casino-style gambling.

The unusual meeting yesterday of about two dozen anti-gambling legislators and activists comes as Pennsylvania's legislature considers a proposal to allow slot machines at 12 sites around the state, with up to 5,000 of the gambling devices at each location.

The legislation, which is backed by Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell, is expected to be voted on in June.

It calls for eight of the slots facilities to be at horse racing tracks. Four would be at nontrack sites, two in the Philadelphia area, one in Pittsburgh and one in the Poconos.

A plan backed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to legalize 15,500 slot machines in Maryland was rejected by the House of Delegates for the second year in a row this month.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who headed the Maryland group, told the Pennsylvanians to reject the idea promoted by the gambling industry that the expansion of gambling is inevitable.

He said Marylanders who oppose gambling were told the same thing but managed to beat the odds through grass-roots organizing, enlisting the support of politically influential African-American ministers who were concerned about the impact slots would have in their communities and pursuing other strategies.

"For two years, we have in effect repealed the laws of gravity in Annapolis and defeated the slots initiative," Franchot said. "Next year we will be stronger, and the other side will be weaker."

He said one of the more effective tactics was to promote the "NIMBY" or "not in my back yard" idea.

He said support for slots in Maryland quickly evaporated as talk shifted from putting casino-style gambling in largely poor, predominantly African-American communities to putting it in more affluent suburban areas.

A leading gambling proponent in Pennsylvania dismissed the visit by Marylanders as "an act of desperation" by anti-gambling forces.

"If I'm not mistaken, Maryland is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall and a disintegrating horse racing industry," said Thomas M. Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association. "If that's what they're here to sell, we don't want any."

In political terms, the anti-gambling groups from Maryland and Pennsylvania are almost a mirror image of each other.

Mostly, progressive Democrats and African-Americans have led Maryland's anti-gambling efforts. They are battling a pro-slots Republican governor who has the support of most legislators from his party.

In Pennsylvania, anti-gambling efforts have been led by Rep. Paul Clymer, a Republican from suburban Philadelphia who is drawing most of his support from conservative, white Republicans.

Anderson joked about the political differences as members of the two groups met for lunch to discuss ways to defeat slots. "I haven't been in a room with this many Republicans in my life," he said.

Anderson said he couldn't understand why Pennsylvania's legislative black caucus has endorsed proposals to expand gambling when it will negatively affect their communities.

"The black Democrats are for this?" he said. "To me, it's amazing. ... I'm shocked that legislators representing the poor and undereducated would actually consider having something like this brought into their neighborhoods."

Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, told the Pennsylvanians that African-American ministers were key allies in persuading wavering black lawmakers not to vote for slots.

"Every delegate in Prince George's County was told if you support gambling, we will come back to your community, and we will tell everybody ... and you will be in deep trouble," Benson said.

She and Anderson offered to make contact with black legislators and clergy in Pennsylvania to try to enlist help from the African-American community for their anti-gambling efforts.

Franchot, in turn, asked for advice from the Pennsylvanians in reaching out in Maryland to get more conservative, family-value Republicans involved in anti-gambling efforts in Maryland.

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