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Road to casino paid with slots

July 20, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

Memo to Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Mike Busch: Thanks but no thanks to your suggestion that Washington County might make a suitable home to a slot machine gambling casino.

See, gambling really isn't our thing. Just because we're almost always near the top of the Maryland leaderboard in per capita lottery sales and just because we will sit at a bar all night vacantly pulling apart $80 million per annum in paper tips for a chance to win the windfall sum of $5 and just because it is impossible to get a freaking soda at a local convenience store because some chucklehead with $20 and a dime is standing at the counter in front of you scratching off tickets with an arthritic paw capable of spasming its way across an inked-out block about once every three minutes and - what was I talking about?

Oh, right, slot machines. Sorry, Mike, I do get away from my point sometimes.

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Busch made news last week when he said the Hagerstown area might be a sensible location for slots.

"You can't write off Hagerstown and Washington County if the purpose is to keep Maryland money in Maryland," he said. "Hagerstown becomes an avenue that has to be seriously considered."

Of course he has also called legalized slots "a race to the bottom."

So by pegging Hagerstown, maybe he just wants to start close to it.

Our local elected officials were kind of acting as if they have been blindsided by the news. But last winter, Busch clearly said the most desirable spots in Maryland for slots would be in counties with interstate highways leading into states that already have slots.

Now I'm no Rand McNally, but a peek at a map would show just three interstates leading into slot states, including I-81 right here in good ole W.C.

In fact, I could swear that some local writer, a genius it would seem, made that very point about five months ago. Knowing that there is a very fine line between a genius and a blind hog, that is all I am prepared to say in the matter.

I liked Sen. John Hafer's reaction the best: "If it makes sense, I'll support it."

That concept is so out of line for a traditional politician, it sort of bends the mind. But does the slots proposition - specifically, near the I-70/81 interchange as Busch says - make sense? The answer is "yes," and here's why:

We are on the verge of, and in some ways in the middle of, a serious county roads problem. We need repairs, we need bypasses, we need two more lanes on our interstate and in at least one case, we need an entire new corridor.

But the state needs most of our gas-tax money to subsidize city subways and every last local dime we can spare for transportation is going into fill dirt out at the airstrip. So it's time for local lawmakers to swoop in.

Busch, a Democrat, has blocked the slot machine proposals of Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich for two years running. And in a brilliant tactical maneuver, Busch has told Republican-heavy delegations "Well, all right, I suppose we can legalize slots - as long as one of these casinos is located in your home district."

Of course the Republicans want the revenue from slots, but not the slots themselves because the Bible condemns it. Or at least I think it does, somewhere in the back.

But it's within the capability of our delegation to be on the cutting edge for once, to call the speaker's bluff, to trump him at his own game!

Here's what they do: Say, "fine, Mr. Speaker sir, we accept your proposal to put a casino in our fair county - all we ask in return is 2 percent of the gross dedicated specifically to Washington County roads so we can build real pretty paths to your casino." For the delegation, it's golden because there is no greater political cover than asphalt. Our roads get upgraded and all it will cost us is playing host to a few hundred thousand little old ladies in tennis shoes. And who knows, it might get some of the local high-rollers into the casino and out of the convenience stores so the rest of us can get our coffee while it's hot.

Dazzling stratagem, no? Some will still have moral concerns, but I have looked deep within my soul for the most moral, righteous, principled factor of all in determining the virtue of slots: property values. And heck, my home's about 10 feet from the I-70/81 interchange. If I am able to sell out to a casino support industry at a tidy profit, is that my fault? Three lemons says it's not.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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