A lack of horse sense

May 09, 2007

Horses aren't the only thing hoofing it at Pimlico these days. The Maryland Racing Commission was run out of there last week - by Gov. Martin O'Malley, who decided that an agency that's supposed to be regulating the track probably shouldn't be in bed with its owner.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, agreed to lease office space at Pimlico to the commission for a $1 a year, utilities included. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Board of Public Works approved the deal in the closing days of the Ehrlich administration.

What were they thinking? The inherent conflict of interest in the arrangement was too obvious to require a photo finish. It's one thing for the track to make space available for a state vet - that's akin to Perdue chicken processing plants accommodating federal health inspectors - but you don't see the secretary of agriculture setting up his office there. Commission members were even advised against the deal by the state attorney general's office.

What's troubling about this is that the commission's fundamental purpose is to regulate - and not merely promote - the horse racing industry. But a lingering problem is of even greater proportions: Such an ethical lapse raises anew the same old questions about whether slot machines should ever be allowed at the tracks - and whether state government can be trusted to properly regulate them.

The inherent conflicts of interest posed by slots, especially over such basic decisions as where they will be located and who will receive the potential windfall profits, are not so easily addressed - and remain a formidable roadblock to expanded gambling.

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