Slots Debate May Never Stop

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

In church sermons and rallies of the faithful throughout Maryland this month, religious leaders were hitting hard on the social problems they say state-sponsored slot machine gambling would bring to local communities.

Supporters of the Nov. 4 ballot measure to legalize slots acknowledge the social costs but say the economic benefits to the state's public schools outweigh the potential problems.

If the experience with slots in neighboring Delaware is any guide, the debate won't end after the votes are counted next week in Maryland.

In the 14 years since Delaware lawmakers legalized slots at three racetracks, the impact has been mixed. The number of calls to the state's gambling-addiction help line has swelled, but law enforcement officials say there has not been the surge in crime predicted by slots opponents.

Along with a dizzying mix of bells and beeping and flashing lights, the thousands of slot machines in Delaware's casinos display the phone number for the state-funded help line, initiated with the introduction of slots in the mid-1990s. Almost immediately, the nonprofit group that runs the call center began hearing from people who previously visited Atlantic City maybe once a year and were now, with slots at a nearby racetrack, gambling on a lunch break or after work.

"One thing I know for darn sure is that within six weeks, we were inundated with calls from people who said they'd never had a problem before but they were hooked on slots. They got hooked on slots here," said Elizabeth Pertzoff, executive director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems.

Calls for help more than tripled, from 1,400 in 1997 to 4,540 the next year, but Pertzoff said she does not want to overstate a problem that affects a small percentage of the population. She said it is difficult to put a number on the social costs or to make a direct link to crime. The criminal cases she knows of have been subtle, such as embezzlement from civic associations or lawyers' skimming from the trust accounts of clients.

Pertzoff is more concerned about the personal cost to the addicts and their families of suicide, divorce and bankruptcy. Unlike alcohol, she said, "you don't even get enough of it that you pass out for a while. You run out of money, and the craving is still there. It is a devastating addiction."

Of Delaware's share of gambling profits, about 1 percent, or $1.7 million in fiscal 2008, goes to help problem gamblers. Pertzoff's organization has grown from two in-house employees to nine. There are also 17 contract counselors and five prison-based programs.

Before slots arrived at Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway, there was talk that gambling would bring organized crime, prostitution and other troubles to the surrounding neighborhoods.

"None of the above," said Col. Thomas Mac Leish, Delaware State Police superintendent, who was the officer in charge of the video lottery enforcement unit from 1998 to 2001. "There are no numbers that leap off the board that are indicative of a rise in crime."

Scanning categories of crime through the years, Mac Leish did not see trends directly connected to slots. A doubling of incidents of disorderly conduct near Dover Downs from 1995 to 2006, for instance, he attributed to the nearly 200,000 people who descend on Dover for NASCAR weekends.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company