Friday, Oct. 26, 2007

Gambling foes rally

Led by religious leaders, hundreds rally in Prince George’s against legalizing slots

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Raphael Talisman⁄The Gazette
‘‘The devil is at the door. We’re not going to get any details,” Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot charged at Saturday’s anti-slots rally in Upper Marlboro. ‘‘[The gambling industry] is in Annapolis right now. They’re the ones writing the legislation even as I speak.”
More than 500 Prince George’s residents, religious leaders and lawmakers rallied Saturday to protest the latest push for legalized gambling in Maryland.

‘‘[Slot machines] send a message that dollars are precious, and that people, well, people are expendable,” United Methodist Bishop John Schol told the crowd at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro. ‘‘It is the few that gain from gambling. Our Creator has called upon us to be the advocates for the least, for the last and the lost.”

Religious leaders organized the rally to motivate residents before the state legislature convenes in a special session on Monday to figure out how to close the state’s projected $1.7 billion deficit. One of the proposed solutions is legalizing gambling machines.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has called the session, where he is also expected to ask for a 1-cent hike to the state sales tax and for creation of new income tax brackets to collect more money from the richest residents.

But it’s the plan to legalize slots that had the crowd concerned.

‘‘Frankly, I don’t think we’ve ever been weaker,” Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) told the group, adding that the special session could allow slots supporters to approve the machines without enduring the debate and hearings of a regular 90-day legislative session.

‘‘The devil is at the door. We’re not going to get any details,” he said. ‘‘[The gambling industry] is in Annapolis right now. They’re the ones writing the legislation even as I speak.”

Religious leaders in Prince George’s have long opposed slot machines. While supporters have said bringing slots to Maryland racetracks will revive the flagging horse racing industry, opponents say the machines prey on poor people and lead to addiction.

Franchot, who as comptroller handles collecting and accounting for the state’s taxes and fees, said there’s evidence that slots would prey on the poor. A recent analysis Franchot commissioned from the state lottery commission showed that more than 80 percent of all lottery ticket money came from the poorest parts of Prince George’s County and Baltimore city.

‘‘We know this because we know the ZIP codes these sales come from,” Franchot said. ‘‘They say that white people and the middle class buy them, too. But I’ll buy a ticket maybe once every six months.”

Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Dist. 23B) of Kettering agreed.

‘‘Nobody will be coming from California to Rosecroft Raceway,” he said. ‘‘But you know the person around here paying $800 a month in rent will be going down there every paycheck, trying to turn it into more.”

In addition to the hundreds of parishioners and more than 40 pastors and clergy, several state delegates and County Council members came to the rally at the mega-church.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) did not attend the rally, but a spokesman said Johnson has not formed an opinion on the special session slots proposal, although he has opposed attempts to legalize slots in the past.

Clergy members said they plan to organize buses to take opponents to Annapolis and plan a phone call campaign urging lawmakers to drop slots from the special session’s agenda.

‘‘We ought to be able to use that which we learn on Sunday morning the rest of the week,” said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver of Greater Mount Nebo A.M.E. Church of Bowie, who organized the rally.

Weaver is the president of The Collective Banking Group Inc., an organization consisting of more than 150 area churches that united in 1993 to address concerns about banking and business practices. The organization helped lead the fight in 2005 against a slots bill that passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate.

The messages at the rally hit home with Rudolph and Rosie McComb, a retired Mitchellville couple who attended Saturday’s rally.

‘‘Instead of bringing gambling, maybe they should raise the taxes on alcohol and cigarettes,” Rosie McComb said. ‘‘Maybe that’ll stop them from drinking. Then they could afford to take care of the kids.”