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If someone's going to get rich off slots, maybe it should be us

July 25, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

If, as Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch says, gambling is "a race to the bottom," then most communities nationwide have already crossed the finish line.

If it's not slot machines it's video poker; if it's not video poker it's tip jars; if it's not tip jars it's bingo; if it's not bingo, it's lottery.

In Busch's home county of Anne Arundel, the bingo halls are powerful and organized and huge. It is possible the speaker does indeed see slot machines as a race to the bottom, but some of his most powerful constituents probably see them as a race into their own wallets - and, being caring individuals, they would hate to see good, wholesome bingo money being frittered away on one-armed bandits.

Here in Washington County, local officials almost fainted when they learned there may be some illegal, backroom poker games going on here and there. I applaud these officials for their ability to faint with a straight face in a county that already gambles will in excess of $100 million every year on tips, bingo and lottery.

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The best argument against slots is that people with addictions will steal and spend the supper money on bucketsful of quarters. The worst argument against slots is that it's the first cousin of drug rings and prostitution.

Walk into any slots parlor of your choosing, look around, and try to picture how many of the patrons will walk out the doors later in the evening looking for a hooker and a couple of rocks of crack. A nurse and a couple of Geritol tablets, perhaps, but a roll in the hay and a line of coke would kill 90 percent of them.

So just how high should our knees be jerking in anguish when the speaker suggests Washington County as a venue for slots?

For better or for worse, mine stopped jerking when Pennsylvania approved slots. I'm still no huge fan of gambling, but the sands of time can wear a person down and, if he's not careful, render his message irrelevant. The guy on the Titanic bellowing "women and children first" served a noble purpose, but of what good was he after he drowned?

As it stands now, Western Maryland is a slot-machine sandwich. We may wish to protect "our people" from the scourge, but soon no one in this county will be more than 45 minutes from a slot machine.

If this is the inevitable case, then it shifts the debate. To wit, if the scourge is going to be with us, how can we get the most out of the scourge?

Suppose a slots parlor were to suddenly beam down at the Interstate 70/81 interchange, or onto Dual Highway? Would Hagerstown and Washington County be appreciably changed?

Maybe - but if we do it right, they could be changed for the good. I haven't seen any solid proposals, but it stands to reason the localities that host slots would receive part of the take. The "social costs" of slots may not be as high as is routinely trumpeted, but that does not mean there are no costs at all. Roads and utilities would doubtless have to be upgraded (and of course when the state initiates something like gambling, it also has to pay for all those public service initiatives telling people not to gamble).

So much money circulates through slot parlors that even small percentages can mean big money - Jefferson County, W.Va., governments rake in $6 million. Even gambling officials agree this is an unsustainable amount as more and more states turn to slots, but under any circumstances it would be a decent revenue stream for communities such as Hagerstown that have big plans, but empty pockets.

The city has talked of a convention center, and certainly such a project would be much more viable with slots in the back yard as a way to unwind after all the "hard work" of the convention itself.

Frequently, convention-goers will bring along family members looking for something to do, and some of them will have tastes that run a little more highbrow than slots. So logically, convention and gambling revenues could also be targeted toward the downtown Arts and Entertainment District because the district would serve people who are (indirectly) here because of slots.

Rather than make a community seedy and run-down, slots and the money they generate can revive a neighborhood and attract desirable development, if the funds are properly used.

And speaking of which, charities are justifiably concerned that slots would siphon gamblers away from tip jars - which are one of their major sources of funding.

So part of any local slots revenue stream should be directed to charity, and the tax on tip jars should be correspondingly reduced. Private clubs are already losing members as their populations age, and the shift of even more patrons into slots parlors would be a further blow. Consequently, it would make sense to shift the charity-tax burden from tips to slots.

Speaker Busch, who holds the key to legalized slots, has been having great fun sneaking up behind Republican delegations across the state and yelling, "Slots!" To date, the Republicans have jumped a mile high, because they want the revenues, but they don't want the physical betting parlors in their own, God-fearing communities.

But God works in mysterious ways. Slots should be weighed for their total impact, negative and positive, for the community. If slots are coming anyway, and if some local communities are going to benefit, the proper course might be to figure out how to use slots for the greater good.

Next time the speaker yells slots, the proper response from our local delegation might be, "We're listening."

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