Gambling's payoff

November 13, 2007

If the Maryland General Assembly chooses to approve slot machines, lawmakers ought to at least take the precaution of setting parameters on the gambling industry's influence in Annapolis. Records show that individuals with ties to gambling contributed more than $1.25 million to state candidates and political parties over the past four years - on top of spending more than twice as much on lobbying during the last two.

Other industries may contribute as much to those in power, but none has the same level of dependence on state licensing - and there's no more valuable license then one that allows gambling.

There are too many opportunities for corruption, which is why legislation now before the House Ways and Means Committee to prohibit political contributions from individuals employed in the gambling industry makes a lot of sense.

O'Malley administration officials say they're offended by any suggestion of impropriety in their choice of five locations for slot machines. But the fact that the owner of Ocean Downs in Worcester County has given nearly $400,000 in political donations and now stands to own one of those slots licenses certainly suggests his contributions didn't go unnoticed.

Site selection is just one issue. The Senate last week chose to increase the potential margin for slots operators from the 30 percent of the take proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to 33 percent. Did contributions to Democrats play a role in that decision? It's hard to tell. If Maryland permits slot machines, you can bet that the gambling industry will be back in Annapolis every year looking for more such changes.

New Jersey and Louisiana have taken similar action, and it's not hard to see why. They don't want another Edwin W. Edwards, the former Louisiana governor now serving a 10-year prison sentence on racketeering, extortion and fraud charges related to the awarding of casino licenses.

State courts have upheld the bans as constitutional. And Maryland law already places restrictions on campaign donations. They can't, for instance, be given anonymously or to a General Assembly member during the annual 90-day legislative session.

If the governor's slots proposal were to pass, limiting political contributions from the gambling industry seems like a reasonable protection. Failing to do so would be a victory not for free speech but for the allure of deep-pocketed political donors who are guaranteed to come calling to Annapolis year after year.

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