Blair Lee: Slots: It’s a fairness thing -- Gazette.Net


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Remember when we thought it was immoral to let people play slot machines?

Seems quaint now, like premarital virginity, but on May 15, 1962, Maryland voters outlawed slots in the state. No, it wasn’t by public referendum, it was by the election returns from the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

During WWII four southern Maryland counties legalized slot machines near military bases, reaping a fortune for the operators and for the counties. But in 1962, a wealthy Charles County reformer, Dave Hume, with no experience in elected office ran a single-issue crusade against slots.

Hume was considered a fringe candidate in the big race between incumbent governor Millard Tawes and perennial challenger George Mahoney. Tawes won (40 percent) but Hume almost beat Mahoney (26.7 percent to 28 percent) and carried Prince George’s, Washington and Montgomery counties, winning more votes in Montgomery than Tawes and Mahoney combined!

Hume also finished a strong second in the four southern Maryland slots counties. Shocked by the election returns, Tawes and the legislature outlawed slots in 1963, phasing them out over five years. Of course, a couple of years later the state went into the lottery business by convincing voters that its revenues would fund schools and make future tax increases unnecessary. Sound familiar?

And do you remember when Maryland’s contemporary politicians were morally opposed to slots? Remember governor Parris Glendening’s pious mantra, “No slots, no casinos, no exceptions”? Or when Gov. Martin O’Malley dubbed slots “morally bankrupt”? Or when House Speaker Mike Busch opposed slots, recalling his family members squandering their paychecks?

And do you remember when State House “progressives,” especially Montgomery’s morally superior lawmakers, were dead set against slots on ethical grounds? Or when Prince George’s lawmakers, including Rushern Baker, opposed slots venues in their county to protect their poor, black constituents?

And do you remember how the Democrats’ resistance stiffened when Republican governor Bob Ehrlich tried legalizing slots? And here’s a good one, do you remember when The Baltimore Sun vehemently opposed both the state lottery and slots because they preyed upon gambling addicts and the poor?

Well, that was yesterday. Since then, public and political ethics haven’t declined, they’ve “evolved.”

In 2007, with Ehrlich out of the way, O’Malley and the Democratic legislature approved 15,000 slot machines at five venues, but just in case public morality hadn’t “evolved” as quickly as theirs, they sent it to the voters as a constitutional amendment.

Told, once again, that state gambling expansion would fund schools and make future tax increases unnecessary, the newly enlightened voters overwhelmingly approved the slots amendment. (Since then there have been 13 new tax increases on income, alcohol, tobacco, flush, etc., as well as unprecedented bridge and highway toll hikes.)

But don’t lose hope. Maryland hasn’t completely turned into the decadent, debauched Bedford Falls in Jimmy Stewart’s “It’s a Good Life” movie nightmare. Our elected officials still cling to some shrunken notion of decency and fair play.

Just witness the ethical debate raging throughout the State House over approving a sixth gambling venue at Prince George’s National Harbor resort. The moral dilemma is tearing apart the General Assembly, pitting lawmaker against lawmaker.

No, I’m not talking about the morality of approving more gambling addiction, prostitution, loan-sharking and depravity. Nor the morality of helping Marylanders waste $1.6 billion a year at the six casinos. That doesn’t worry lawmakers one bit.

What concerns our lawmakers is the morality of approving a new gambling venue so close, in both place and time, to the other five slots venues, especially the just-opened “Maryland Live” casino in Anne Arundel County and the yet-to-be licensed Baltimore casino.

Is it fair to the Anne Arundel and Baltimore casinos to approve a new casino in Prince George’s that will cut into their share of gamblers and profits? That’s the ethical question.

A special “work group” of legislators and gubernatorial appointees spent weeks struggling to balance the equities. What if we allow all six casinos to add table games (blackjack, craps, roulette, etc.)? Will that bring in enough new revenue to offset the loss of business caused by the National Harbor casino?

Well, what if we also lower the state’s share of gambling revenues and give it to the six casinos? Will that satisfy the other casino operators?

Well, what if we also delay the National Harbor casino opening a few years, and what if we make the National Harbor casino pay the other casinos a mitigation fee?

When struggling with moral issues like abortion, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, etc., opposing parties often find it impossible to agree. Likewise, the gambling expansion work group this week couldn’t agree on a fair, equitable way to compensate Maryland’s already-approved five slots venues.

Maryland suffers from an anti-business reputation and, yes, we keep losing businesses and taxpayers to Virginia. But give Maryland’s lawmakers credit, they bend over backward for at least one industry — casino gambling.

Meanwhile, those dummies in Virginia don’t even allow slot machines. Boy, are they missing out on a good thing!

Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is blair@leedg.com.