Slots' how-not-to guide

July 13, 2004

WITH PENNSYLVANIA finally falling for the bells, whistles and false promises of slots, the twice-defeated advocates of legalizing the devices in Maryland have new impetus to reinvigorate their campaign. Their aim: to scare Annapolis into competing for profits from Marylanders' out-of-state gambling.

But whether the new slots capital of the East actually induces more Marylanders to gamble out of state - the closest Pennsylvania parlor to Baltimore would be about two hours away - this much is already certain: Pennsylvania's passage of slots July 4 provides Maryland with a how-not-to guide should it follow the same highly questionable path:

Pennsylvania studied where to put slots and how much they might rake in, but not their social costs. It's devoting $3 million - 0.001 of the projected take - to such programs. In Maryland, a still paltry $6 million - or 0.004 of revenues - has been proposed.

From 2000 through March of this year, slots in Pennsylvania were paved by $5.8 million in gambling campaign donations, plus another $1.9 million in lobbying fees last year. Maryland slots donations totaled $700,000 for the five years before January; last session's slots lobbying cost $2.3 million.

Pennsylvanians never got to directly vote on whether they want slots - or if they want them in their own communities. Maryland's governor doesn't seem to want to give residents that opportunity, either.

Many Pennsylvania legislators, even some who are pro-slots, say they never had time to read their slots bill before voting. The 146-page bill was introduced as a late amendment to a minor, 46-line racing bill less than a day before the final vote, without even committee hearings. The amendment so swallowed the original bill that there's now talk of a legal challenge to the vote.

The Pennsylvania slots bill gives license holders such a big cut of the take - 48 percent - that two licenses even will be given to tracks, marginal enterprises in themselves, yet to be built. Maryland is considering doing the same in Allegany County.

Pennsylvania will devote much of its projected $1 billion from slots to cutting property taxes, its main way of funding schools. In Maryland, slots might sidestep the need for a tax increase to adequately fund schools. If slots don't deliver, both states' schools could come up short.

There's been talk in Pennsylvania of "securitizing" slots: mortgaging the state's future slots revenues by selling them in exchange for a big up-front payment now. Given deficits, would that tempt Annapolis?

Pittsburgh Steelers' star running back Jerome Bettis is among investors angling for a license, contrary to National Football League bans on player involvement in gambling. Major League Baseball has similar rules, but likewise the family of Orioles' owner Peter G. Angelos is buying Prince George's County's Rosecroft track, a possible slots site.

Pennsylvania public officials will be allowed to own as much as 1 percent of the state's 14 slots licenses, shares that could be worth more than $10 million. Would Maryland officials show more restraint?

As this winter's legislative session approaches, Marylanders doubtless will be exhorted by gambling promoters to look toward Pennsylvania for guidance. We agree - because a thorough look should make slots even less appealing for this state.

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