Slots? Why not? Issue is getting old

January 17, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Sure, we want slots. Why not? According to the poll this newspaper commissioned, nearly six out of 10 Marylanders who can vote in the fall say, sure, slot machines - let's get about 15,000 of them and set them up from the Allegheny Mountains to the Eastern Shore. What the hell? We've been talking about this since the last time the Orioles made the playoffs - yeah, that long - and the issue is not going away. The suits who shoot their cuffs when they walk into a room won't stop until they have what they want, and neither will their duly elected accomplices in Annapolis.

So, slots.

Sure.

Why not? If it means an end to the debate, we're fine with it.

Look, I gave up the fight a couple of years ago, out of boredom more than anything else. You get sick of hearing the same old arguments all the time, and I heard them in three media - print, radio and television.

Plus, there's a certain inevitability about slots - you know it when you see it, and I've seen it coming for several years.

Against what doctors recommend for middle-aged white American males in the era of George Bush, I remain an idealist. I actually think we're going to lick global warming, and I firmly believe the Orioles will make the playoffs again while Peter Angelos owns them.

But on the subject of slot machine gambling - a precursor to full-fledged casinos, including one in Baltimore, with the highest concentration of poverty in the state - I am as cynical as the mangiest, pasty-faced blogger in the blogosphere.

In Matthew 26:11, it says, "For you always have the poor with you." I would like to add the following: "And the forces of gambling and greed right there alongside 'em."

According to polling data, attitudes have shifted in recent years - from a majority disapproving of slots in The Land of Pleasant Living to a majority saying OK.

The guy who does the polling for this newspaper wants to attribute that shift to Bobby Slots, the former Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, who talked slots until he was blue in the face and his sideburns disappeared.

Of course, Bobby Slots didn't get want he wanted - neither slots nor re-election - but he made the point, ad nauseum, that revenue from them was necessary for the survival of horse racing in Maryland.

Sorry, I don't give Bobby Slots credit for convincing us slots are necessary.

Voters are just tired of the issue - and cynical about the inevitability of more gambling here.

There's too much money involved.

I mean, really. Why should Maryland be some prissy oasis from this sleazy form of recreation?

You've heard the arguments: Delaware does it. West Virginia does it, and hot-damn, ma'am, we can't let ourselves fall behind those fine, progressive states. (Last week, Education Week ranked each state for K-12 achievement in public education. Maryland got a B and ranked third nationally. West Virginia got an F; its eighth-graders are 47th in math and 43rd in reading. Delaware got a C-minus. )

While I'm not surprised that a majority of Maryland voters now approve of slots, I'm a little surprised that only 32 percent of us think some of the revenue derived from gambling should prop up the state's racing industry.

That has been central to the argument all along - that, without slots, purses of thoroughbred races will continue to fall, and good horses and trainers and owners will follow the money elsewhere (to states with slots) and crops will fail, and broodmares will die, and farm hands will be forced to stop painting all that white board fence out there, and Maryland just won't be as pretty, and the farms will be sold to developers and they'll build McMansions where Native Dancer used to stand at stud, and pretty soon there won't be any Maryland horses at all, and Maryland racing will be reduced to one day just for the Preakness, and it will be held at Laurel, and Pimlico will become a paintball course.

That's the kind of thing we've been hearing for years.

But, apparently, Marylanders aren't convinced. Or they don't care.

There's a whole generation - or two - of Marylanders who've grown up without horse breeding and racing in their consciousness; they have little in the way of nostalgic affection for it. They certainly don't patronize the tracks, and most of them probably only think about the sport one day per year.

Plus, a lot of Marylanders work in an economy that's constantly shifting and downsizing; they don't see anyone suggesting that state-sanctioned gambling be used to subsidize the industry in which they're employed. And, no doubt, there's a strong social class aspect to this - the thoroughbred industry may employ a lot of blue-collar workers, but it's generally perceived as a hobby of the well-to-do.

Even those of us who've given up this fight still see slots as an indirect tax on the poor. So we're going to get the poor to gamble on slots to prop up the horse industry.

Sorry. That last sentence sounded like the start of an argument. But it's too late for that. Plus, I'm out of space.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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