Politics' best return for third round of arguing over slots

February 18, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT WAS A NICE little speech Doug Duncan delivered Wednesday on the perils of slot machine money as salvation for Maryland's economy. He obviously did some homework, and he knows how to deliver a heartfelt argument. If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could make either claim, we'd probably have slot machines across the state by now, for better or worse.

Poor Ehrlich has made gambling the centerpiece of his first two years in office, and gotten nowhere. Without slots, what's his big accomplishment so far? A flush tax? Exalted lectures about personal respect? Help me here, somebody. With slots, he says he'll send adequate money to the public schools. That's some beautiful thought - that it takes a slot machine to educate a child.

So there was Duncan, the Montgomery County executive, in a packed little meeting room in Annapolis on Wednesday, preaching to a collection of true believers. Meaning, they all believe slots are a plague.

According to recent polls, though, this distinguishes them from a majority of Marylanders, who think slots would be OK - as long as they're in somebody else's back yard. And it certainly distinguishes them from the gambling interests who have contributed bags of money to Ehrlich's campaign coffers while he's championed their cause.

In Duncan's telling, Maryland has a choice between two kinds of worlds. He pointed to his own home turf, the Washington suburbs. That corridor, he said, with its excellent schools and universities, its expanding high-tech industries and its entrenched political culture, has the fastest-growing economy in America.

What's No. 2? Go figure - it's Las Vegas. As Duncan sees it, the choice between the two is high-tech jobs with real money, or "low-paying hospitality jobs. ... We want our children to be scientists and doctors and technicians. We don't want them sitting in a cage making change" while earning poverty wages.

Meanwhile, the governor's pitch, now entering its third dreary legislative inning, has been consistent: Slots money would benefit schools, agriculture, the moribund racing industry. Opponents' response: The high social costs - the rise in crime, the cost of more police, the danger of gambling addiction, the strain on communities where these slots would be located - eventually eat away at gambling's financial benefits.

"It's like putting a sidewalk over quicksand," Duncan said. "It looks great for a while, but you know it's gonna sink."

He said this on Wednesday, the morning it was revealed that the family of Peter Angelos had backed out of a deal to buy the Rosecroft horse racing facility. Some saw this as a canary in the mine shaft of slots legislation. Angelos, it was believed, wanted the track because he assumed slots were coming. If he pulled out, it must be the tip-off that slots are dead - or, at least, dead in Prince George's County, where there's been a loud anti-slots outcry among legislators and their constituents. (Angelos did not return a phone call to his office yesterday.)

After two bungled Ehrlich efforts on slots, there are some wondering whether the governor's still pushing them only so he can declare himself a martyr: Look what those Democrats did to me! Look at the money we could have given to school children, if only the Democrats hadn't been so intent on denying me political victory!

But, if the governor's playing a cynic's game, he's not exactly alone.

We live in a state in which we employ the language of great morality to condemn one form of gambling while winking a complicit eye at others. Horse racing's fine, but slots are not - even if they're located within the confines of racetracks. The lottery numbers are carried each night on the TV news, and Keno results come in by the hour, and all of this is advertised with millions of state dollars. But heaven forbid anybody should spend a few hours at a slot machine when they could invest their cash on U.S. savings bonds.

In matters of great money, we all choose sides and try to brush off any inconvenient facts. You want to argue the immorality of gambling? Come on, that argument disappeared with the state lottery, and with horse racing long before that.

And if you want to argue the benefits of slot machines - how come nobody wants them in their own community?

Standing next to Duncan the other day was Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot, who expressed anger with a Senate that had voted favorably on slots. Franchot called it "a disgusting charade. The gambling industry's calling all the shots. ... They're going to put [slots] in struggling communities that don't have the strength to stand up."

So we're back, for a third legislative session, killing off the hours with talk of gambling as economic panacea, or as social scourge. These are the times when great leaders are made, if anyone can find one.

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