Debate over slots has raged for years

January 04, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

A Washington County senator was sitting in his Howard Street office in Hagerstown when he got a visit from a friend and former local delegate.

The man allegedly told the senator that if he voted in favor of slot machines, he could receive as much as $10,000.

The year was 1968.

Although former Del. George W. Tingle ultimately was acquitted of bribing Sen. George E. Snyder, some still point to the notorious case as a cautionary tale at a time when the state once again is considering legalizing slots.


It's a worst-case scenario of what can happen when corruption taints the political process, said Snyder, the one-time senator who notified police about the alleged bribe.

Snyder related his story on the floor of the Senate that year.

Gambling supporters lost their reputation as well as Snyder's vote. Slot machines, which had been legal in five Southern Maryland counties, were phased out.

In 1987, the legislature legalized slot machines on the Eastern Shore. They allowed certain nonprofit organizations to operate up to five machines, with half the money going to charity.

After that, there was little discussion about slots until 2002, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich was elected on a pro-slots platform.

Last session, Ehrlich's proposal for slots at racetracks was defeated in a House of Delegates committee.

He is expected to make a renewed push for gambling during the legislative session that begins Jan. 14, saying it's the best way to address a projected $800 million deficit for the budget year that begins July 1.

Some slots foes said gambling interests are operating under the same shady cloud as they did 35 years ago.

They point to the FBI's investigation of large campaign contributions made to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, who favors slots.

Gambling always has been associated with seedy elements, Snyder, 74, said in a telephone interview from Sarasota, Fla., where he now lives.

"I think (gambling) just attracts that type person. I don't think it ever changed," Snyder said.

A Democrat who rarely follows Maryland politics since his 16-year stint in the state Senate ended in 1974, Snyder said he was disappointed the issue has resurfaced.

"We fought long and hard to get rid of (slots). I'm saddened to see them coming back," he said.

Slots supporters said there's no validity to the argument that slots will lead to widespread corruption.

In state-sponsored gambling, much like the lottery, there is a lot of oversight over the money that's gambled, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Also, Ehrlich has proposed slots only at racetracks, where gambling already exists, Shank said.

"We're dealing with human beings and there's going to be so much money sloshing around that the potential is there," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington. "Unfortunately, when you have lots of money, it presents the opportunity for lots of criminal activity."

But computers, which weren't perfected back then, will allow control over the cash flow, Munson said.

Technology will ensure that anyone trying to cheat the system will be caught quickly, he said.

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