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Potomac Confidential

A Matter Of Money, Not Md.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Through all the years, as Republicans and Democrats alike schemed to legalize slot machines in Maryland, politicians desperately tried to cover their big money grab with high-toned purpose. Slots, they said, would benefit our kids; gambling would save the state's elegant horses and the picturesque farms on which they were raised. Always, slots were presented as a strictly limited vice, anything but a steppingstone toward full-blown casinos.

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Now we're seeing how empty all those promises really were. We're learning -- as if we needed proof -- that the politicians are happy to put thousands of slot machines at a shopping mall rather than a horse track and that the gambling industry isn't nearly as interested in Maryland as Maryland is in those companies' business. But wait: There's good news, too, as it becomes crystal clear how plainly many voters saw right through the politicians' phony promises.

As Anne Arundel County Council members head toward a vote on whether to allow developers to install a slots palace with almost 5,000 gambling machines at Arundel Mills mall, I headed there to hear what people have to say about the prospect of lemons and cherries being next door to Best Buy and Books-a-Million.

What I found was that whether people hate the idea of adding busloads of small-time gamblers to the family scene or love the prospect of having one more pleasant diversion, they have never bought the lines that governors Bob Ehrlich and Martin O'Malley peddled about how slots were meant to help Maryland's fading horse industry.

Sara and Fred Binder have lived in Laurel all their lives, and they like their town's horse track, even if they almost never set foot in the place. But they don't want the state propping up the horse industry. "I don't think the people's money should be spent for horse racing -- not when there are so many things that are so needed these days," Sara says. She'd rather the mall remain a place for families, apart from worries about a seedy or unsafe atmosphere around a gambling spot. But she figures that's probably a lost battle.

Inevitably, slots will be placed wherever people are, husband and wife agree. And they're sure that all-out casinos can't be far behind. Even as Maryland struggles to get slots running to compete with Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the Delaware legislature considered (but rejected) legalizing wagering on professional sports games. The gambling arms race will hardly end with slots, and hard times make the mirage of easy money even more appealing to politicians who lack the spine to raise taxes or cut services.

Call the expansion of state-sponsored gambling what it is, people insist. Drop the sweet talk about the beautiful horses. Tracks are dying, the Binders agree. "Let nature take its course," Sara adds. "There's too many other things that take people's attention now."

As Anne Arundel's elected officials struggle over whether to sanction slots at the mall, many voters seem to believe that their own queasiness about the crime, traffic or sleaze that gambling might bring is irrelevant. "It would be too many people and too much chance for crime," says Jeanne Ostrander of Brooklyn Park, who wears a T-shirt that advertises Charles Town Races and Slots, the West Virginia competition. "But we all know we need the money. And if they're going to have slots, why not the casinos, too? I mean, what's the difference?"

Ostrander's mother, Mary Ann Werfel, agrees: "We need slots in Anne Arundel. I'd rather it was at the track, but if they build a separate building from the mall, it would be okay here, too." (The developer seeking the slots license has not specified exactly where the gambling facility would be, but county officials expect a separate building near the mall.)

Jim DeLung, an engineer who lives in Laurel, has no problem with slots at the mall. "What's the difference if you come out here and spend all your money on adding to this" -- he grabs a hunk of flesh around his belly -- "or come and play the slots? Nobody goes to the horses anymore, so why not put the slots where the people are?

"I don't play the slots," DeLung adds -- "he's very tight," his wife, Patricia, interjects -- "but you need a gathering place for people. You get to an age where your friends start dying and you have no one to talk to."

That's how life is, and people appreciate when you tell it straight. Like them or loathe them, slots are coming, and what voters would like most is to see politicians drop the pretenses about horses and just present gambling for what it is -- a cynical play for easy money from suckers who would rather plunk their bucks into machines than pay it out as taxes.

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