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Maryland's slots effort is more liability than asset

December 12, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

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Gambling has never really been able to stand on its own two feet in the public's eye, so it has incorporated another game - Cowboys and Indians - to tip the balance in its favor.

Gambling will benefit Native American tribes, or the horse industry, they say. Or teachers, or students, or taxpayers, or local government, or - well, just about everyone except the actual gamblers themselves, who always lose in the end.

Is it a noble, or at least a tolerable, trade-off? So many variables are in play that this becomes an unanswerable question.

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It looks good from a distance, as gambling money, or a fraction thereof, trickles down to worthy causes. But a hundred million dollars spent on gambling is a hundred million that's not spent in other areas of the economy. Gambling money is not "found money." Gambling money is someone else's lost money.

Still, it's hard to argue that the national gambling ship has not already sailed. Worries - justifiable or not - about morality, crime, addictions and added burdens on the poor have been drowned out by clanging bells, flashing lights and the dream of hitting it big.

The only decisions for states anymore is whether to board the ship or be left behind. As such, Maryland continues to have one foot on the bow and one on the dock, and there's a real possibility it could end up in the drink, possessing only a half-hearted slots effort that becomes more liability than asset.

Recessions are bad for gambling in general, but they can be good for gambling specifically, as economic considerations (and a mountain of advertising cash) encouraged Jefferson County voters last weekend to overwhelmingly approve table games at Charles Town (W.Va.) Races & Slots.

Maryland, meanwhile, is still stumbling along - talking, arguing, voting, bidding, re-voting, rebidding and generally making a mess of things. Where states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania have fairly rationally treated gambling as an economic issue, Maryland has treated it as a political issue. How can we use gambling to damage the opposing party?

When former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, was pushing slots, General Assembly Democrats oozed a newfound morality and blocked the issue for years. Now that Democrats have retaken the governor's office, practicality has trumped the need to appear more Christlike.

Maryland is desperate for the cash, but state government, local governments and bureaucrats are kicking the ball around like a team in the basement of a Pop Warner league. The Anne Arundel County Council had to postpone a vote on slots this week, in part, because one of its members had to go to the hospital with heart palpitations.

If that's not a metaphor for the past decade of Maryland gambling history, then none exists.

Slots were supposed to be operational at Ocean Downs by Memorial Day, but, according to the developer, renovations have turned up asbestos and "serious corrosion in many of the primary and secondary structural members, some of it very problematic" in the grandstand. Plus, the state is dragging its feet in a needed traffic study.

And Charles Town has just upped the ante. It appears clear that high rollers will be going all-in at poker games across the river before the first little old lady in tennis shoes pumps her inaugural quarter into a Maryland slot machine.

This would all be amusing enough, except as gambling relates to open space. Jump off the interstate at almost any point between Frederick, Md., and Washington, D.C., and you'll notice that one of the last defenses against development is thousands of acres of horse farms.

Yet few people are breeding Maryland mares because the financial incentives have all moved to states with gambling-bolstered purses. The one state with a growing number of foals is not one of the traditional racing powerhouses - it's Pennsylvania, now a gambling powerhouse.

Open space might be the one curious side benefit of gambling that benefits everyone, not just a targeted group. Even those with no interest in our proud tradition of racing need to consider the loss that occurs when farms are swallowed by sprawl.

At this point, however, all we can do is hope that Maryland is able to knock the corrosion from its collective primary members before gambling revenue will no longer be enough to save the endangered farms.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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