Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who opened the door to slot machine gambling on the Eastern Shore when he took office seven years ago, now is looking for a way to shut it a bit before his final term is over.
Mr. Schaefer appointed a 17-member task force yesterday to study all forms of gambling in Maryland and to recommend in just two months whether anything needs to be done.
John J. Mitchell, a retired Montgomery County circuit judge whom Mr. Schaefer picked to chair the task force, said he has yet to discuss the issue with the governor. But he interpreted the panel's principal goal as "trying to regulate more forcefully the use of gambling devices on the Eastern Shore."
This past winter, Mr. Schaefer unsuccessfully pushed legislation to give the state more regulatory control over slot machine gambling.
When Mr. Schaefer came to power in 1987, he honored a campaign pledge by legalizing slot machines in fraternal and veterans clubs in eight Eastern Shore counties. The law requires that at least half the proceeds go to charities.
Since then, Mr. Schaefer has complained that he may have made a mistake, that slot machine gambling appears to have gotten out of hand and that there is too little government oversight.
"The system of slot machines on the Shore today is quite different than what it was envisioned to be seven years ago in terms of the number of machines and the amount of money being bet," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's chief of staff. An estimated $30 million a year is bet on the machines. The task force, Mr. Schurick said, "is an opportunity to go after a perceived problem."
The panel is to look at all forms of legal and illegal gambling in Maryland and, among its other duties, it is to estimate the amount of money wagered, paid in prizes and retained by sponsoring organizations.
The group is expected to look at casino gambling in Prince George's County, tip jar gambling in Western Maryland, professional bingo parlors in Anne Arundel County and the use ** of video poker machines and other forms of gambling elsewhere.
The governor also asked the panel to determine the potential for the state to increase its revenues by taxing gambling proceeds, although Mr. Schurick said that was a "secondary" consideration.
A report is due Dec. 1, but Judge Mitchell, 66, who retired last year after 19 years on the bench, said he doubted that the task force could complete the job in so short a time.
Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee where two bills to regulate gambling died this past session, said yesterday that he is still isn't convinced of the need for new laws. "I don't know of any illegal activities," he said, although he said he knew of an investigation launched nearly a year ago by the Maryland attorney general into how slot machine revenue was being spent and accounted for. Bank records from about 50 licensed Shore clubs have been scrutinized.
Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III said yesterday that he expected that investigation to be finished in six to eight weeks, about the same time the governor's panel is to have completed its work.
As the result of a separate investigation by the state prosecutor, former Talbot County Sheriff John J. Ellerbusch Jr. was indicted and found guilty of using more than $73,000 in department funds for personal expenses. Of the money he spent, several thousand dollars came to his office as payments for slot machine licenses.
Senator Baker cautioned that any bill regulating gambling might be difficult to push through the General Assembly "in an election year."