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March 17, 2005

Hypocrisy and Devastation Hand-in-Hand

Tony Soltero

The whole slots saga resembles more a soap opera than an action thriller, with Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich indulging more in self-righteous preening and opportunistic posturing than in really making efforts to deal with Maryland's budget shortfalls. (When he's not putting ice-skaters in charge of the Port of Baltimore or employing "consultants" to spread lies about his political opponents, of course.)

We see polls telling us that Marylanders seem to want slots - unless, of course, said slots happen to be located near their homes, in which case many of these same Marylanders suddenly lose interest. This attitude is reflected in their elected delegates: we're all for slots, as long as they are in the other guy's district.

One might characterize this kind of mindset as hypocritical; and it most certainly is. But at a deeper level, it simply indicates that despite all the happy talk and overblown rhetoric proffered by slot advocates, most Marylanders are inherently uncomfortable about slot parlors, which make unsavory neighbors in ways that libraries or barbershops don't. Slots are about as community-enhancing as methadone clinics.

Marylanders' "support" for slots does not flow from an attraction to the gambling industry per se, but from the supposed "benefits" that slot-machine revenues potentially provide for the state in general, and for education in particular. It sounds like an easy way to keep the cash flowing into schools without invoking the Dreaded T-Word (and that's exactly the way it's being sold to the public). Face it: if people REALLY thought slots were all that appealing, they would be ASKING for their own communities to host them.

Under girding the slots debate, of course, is the assumption that it's just oh-so-clear that slot machines would be good for the state, and how can House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) not grasp the sheer obviousness of it all? Yes, sir: it's nothing but free money, no new taxes, we get all these keen new schools, and we all live happily ever after in nirvana. There's no downside, and Speaker Busch is spoiling everything by being such a mean and nasty obstructionist. How dare he?

What has been largely missing from the slots debate, as presented by our media (which is far more interested in the legislative chess game than in the underlying issues), is that there most definitely IS a large downside to slot parlors - or, more accurately - to establishing a dependence on the gambling industry to fund essential state services.

Gambling is an acquired addiction - just like alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine. The devastation gambling can wreak upon individuals and families is well-documented and familiar to most people. But what is less understood is that the gambling industry can have the same seductive effect upon governments. Once we begin to rely on casino money to fund schools, we have lost any pretense of clean government and objectivity; we have become slaves to the demands of the gambling industry.

Do we really want to arrive at a situation in which our children's educational futures are dependent on the whims of gambling moguls? "Nice schools you've got there, Governor; would be a shame if the money stopped flowing in. How are you making out on that tax break for us? And we really want that property in Worman's Mill. I'm sure you can get that senior's center to move somewhere, can't you?"

Our politicians are bogged down enough by special interests as it is. Why add another one to the pile - an especially corrosive one? We've already seen new sources of corruption infect Pennsylvania elected officials, as the mayor of Erie was implicated in an illicit land deal with gamblers; expect more stories like these since our neighbor to the north caved in to the slot lobby.

There are other hidden costs as well: rehabilitation and treatment for chronic gamblers; the social, emotional, and financial pain endured by families destroyed by gambling addictions; the increased crime rate that flows from a fairly shady business. We don't need any of this.

Americans should be free to gamble if they so desire - it's not the smartest thing one can do with one's money, but it's one's prerogative to waste it as one wants. If it were just about that, slots wouldn't be quite so offensive. But Governor Ehrlich wants to rely on slot income to fund school construction, and that's where the idea jumps the shark. There's nothing wrong with a few scoops of ice cream now and then, but only a fool relies on Ben and Jerry's for basic nutrition.

Maryland is one of the nation's wealthiest states, with the best-educated citizens among all the states, with a strong revenue base; there is no need for the Free State to debase itself by prostrating itself at the altar of the gambling industry. If people want to go to West Virginia, Delaware or Pennsylvania to gamble, let them; we've got plenty more to offer the family-oriented tourist. The potential drawbacks of adopting slots far outweigh the short-term gains.

Slots are for losers.

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