Pretty soon we can rightly start calling Maryland "Almost Heaven -- for Gamblers." If fraternal lodges have their way, every Elks, Moose and VFW hall from Ocean City to Deep Creek Lake will have slot machines. And if Gov. William Donald Schaefer has his way, thousands of lottery outlets will install electronic gambling machines and dozens of cruise ships will enter the Chesapeake Bay packed with gamblers.
In short, state government is on the verge of legalizing all sorts of gambling in Maryland. And judging from the response of public officials to date, the more lenient they become on the subject of gambling, the easier it is for more virulent forms of games of chance to win legalization.
The slots proposal was a horrible idea when Eastern Shore fraternal and charitable groups won the right to own and operate one-armed bandits, and it's an even worse idea now to expand the gambling statewide. Fraternal groups on the shore have used much of the profits not for charity but to turn their buildings into mini-palaces and to subsidize social activities. That wasn't the intent of the enabling legislation, but there's nothing the state can do about it.
Even more alarming, the State Police cannot keep track of the money flowing into and taken out of the slots on the Eastern Shore. Expanding slots statewide would open these machines to chicanery and make them prime targets of organized crime.
Meanwhile, Governor Schaefer is pushing ahead on an vast expansion of lottery gambling via electronic keno that could turn many establishments into betting emporiums. And now he also wants the legislature to pass a bill allowing gambling on international cruise ships traveling on the Chesapeake Bay. What goes on in the casinos of these ships will be beyond State Police control. It is an open invitation to all sorts of illegalities.
State-sanctioned gambling entraps government in a fund-raising scheme that attracts unsavory elements and often leads to corruption. Just look at Atlantic City's sad experience with its casinos. Why must Maryland follow that same, dismal path? Do officials in Annapolis lack the moral character to stand up to gambling interests? Are they so desperate for tax revenue and "economic development" that they'll sell the state down the river?
These are questions elected officeholders in the State House had better ponder long and hard before embracing a further expansion of games of chance in Maryland. If they cave in to gambling interests, the odds will be stacked against them.