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Slots: Everyone else is doing it, so why not sink to their level?

July 21, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

The number of slot machines at the Charles Town (W.Va.) Races now outnumbers the population of Charles Town itself by about 400.

What has the track done for Jefferson County and the state? Net slot revenue at all West Virginia tracks stood at $642 million in 2002, more than triple what it had been just three years before.

Slot fans say studies show that the equivalent of nearly 3,000 full-time jobs are supported by the track. Along with funding schools, police and seniors, it's boosted local retail sales, promoted tourism, held taxes in check, decreased the welfare rolls, increased property values, contributed to new housing and business starts, boosted charitable giving and, by supporting horse farms, preserved open space. And none of the predicted negative impacts have materialized.

And who is this who's boasting loudy about the success of West Virginia slot enterprises in such glowing terms? West Virginia? No, Pennsylvania.

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Slots in West Virginia exist and slots in Pennsylvania are becoming a forgone conclusion. That would leave Maryland sandwiched in between two gambling states, in the uncomfortable position of watching all those Marylanders and all that Maryland money slip through its tax-collecting paws.

As the Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee gears up for a series of summer hearings on slots, this has become one of the top justifications for legalized gambling: Everybody else is doing it.

This of course sounds more like an argument coming from a teen-ager than a serious public policy board, but it will no-doubt become the winning hand. It's no longer a question of whether Maryland should have slots, it's become a question of who will run them and where will they go.

Impossible as it seems, the Maryland racing industry may have thrown too much money at lawmakers ($2.5 million) in big campaign-contribution checks and what appears to be too-obvious donations in exchange for votes.

Track owners not only want slots, they want to keep as much of the take as they can get, limiting the amount of money that would go toward the public good. They almost make it sound as if slots are an imposition - oh, they'll put the machines at their tracks as a favor to the state, but they couldn't possibly make it worth their time and trouble with less than, say, 60 percent of the take.

In at least one other state the governor said "OK, fine, we wouldn't want to inconvenience you - the government will run the machines itself."

And there's a good chance that could happen here (think Rocky Gap, the Inner Harbor or that huge palace of a hotel built for what appears to be no apparent reason on the deserted banks of the Choptank River outside of Cambridge).

Perhaps Washington County tourism director Ben Hart was right. Maybe we should have built that convention center, because every establishment with the suffix of "convention center" after its name is going to be fair game for slots. There will be conventions, all right - conventions of old ladies in tennis shoes tossing quarters numbly down a hole.

I understand all the objections to slots on the grounds of morality and problem-gambling and the fact that it is essentially a regressive tax on the people who can afford it least. But being a personal-choice kind of guy I'll take a pass on these issues.

But two other matters are more bothersome. First, slots to no small degree get lawmakers off the hook for their terrible financial management. A government that lives beyond its means should not be rewarded with a treasure trove of 20 billion quarters. If the state would reduce the taxes on the rest of us in an amount equal to what they bring in with slots, I'd be all for it.

The second matter is the way Maryland is being "forced" into legalizing gambling because our neighboring states are doing the same thing. It's frustrating, because there is no arguing this point. We will lose serious amounts of tax revenue if we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

I'd like to see all state shares of slot machine profits go into one big pot and then divided equally among the 50 states. Then we'd see real fast how many locales genuinely want a casino in their back yards because it "increases housing starts."

It's this very structure of government forces us into so many stupid decisions. The best argument for spending $52 million in state and federal funds in Washington County on a frivolous runway extension project is that "if we don't get the money, some other community will."

And that's true. But why does it have to be true?

Why couldn't that $52 million just revert to the respective treasuries, meaning there would be 52 million fewer tax dollars the government would have to collect? But government doesn't work that way.

Instead, there's $52 million just floating around out there that's been "appropriated" for "something," and it's going to find a landing spot and get spent, no matter how pointless the project.

And be it in the form of slot revenue or an airport grant, heaven forfend the people of some other artificial-boundaried jurisdiction get the money instead of us.

After all, we can't take the risk, however improbable, that they would put it to good use.

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