Slot machine gambling might well be the "greatest thing" imaginable for Baltimore County's non-profit groups, as one VFW commander charges. But the same surely cannot be said for the county as whole.

The slot-machine proposal, slated to be introduced in the 1991 General Assembly, is on hold to give the Hayden administration time to take a position. The county's new executive, hard-pressed for dollars, may indeed find the notion appealing: Under the provisions of the bill crafted for this session, the non-profits would be required to give half the money they took in from the machines to charity. That, no doubt, would ease budgeting pressures at least a bit. And no doubt the money would go to worthy causes.

But legalizing slot machines could open the door to all manner of abuse -- not the least of which could be skimming and under-reporting of profits. More than that, non-profit organizations, many of which serve or allow members to bring alcohol, would have an unfair competitive edge over for-profit taverns.

The larger issue, however, is the increasing reliance in this state on gambling money (which tends to come disproportionately from those who can least afford it) to take the place of tax dollars, and the concomitant belief that institutionalized gambling can be justified as long as some of the profits are funneled to projects that people want but don't want to pay for outright -- be it a new stadium or new ambulances. On that premise, the state also should legalize prostitution, and stipulate that half the profits be targeted to shelters for the homeless.

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