Casinos for Baltimore?


That headlined question is one a blue-ribbon task force led by former Sen. Joseph D. Tydings must answer in its examination of the pros and cons of casino gambling in Maryland. By late this year, we should have the task force's final decision.

It will be watched carefully. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who chose five of the nine members (the others he selected are Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation; Ted Lewis of St. Mary's College; Ben Brown, the former city solicitor, and Hagerstown banker William Reuter) is depending on this group to give him guidance.

While the five Glendening appointments appear neutral on the pivotal question of casinos in Maryland, the four legislative members lean heavily toward the pro-gambling side. For instance, Del. Sheila Hixson has been the casinos' lead legislator on riverboat gambling and Del. Joseph Vallario is a regular vacationer at casino resorts.

Still, we expect the task force to make a rapid but thorough investigation of casino gambling. Lobbyists, who have called all the shots on this debate so far, paint this as an ideal growth industry. They talk of huge and expensive multiple-use complexes featuring a wealth of recreation and entertainment activities for adults, for kids and for families. They talk of luxury hotels and restaurants, of 30,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for both the state and hard-pressed localities, such as Baltimore City.

But is it a good bet? The Tydings task force must look at all sides of the question. What about the impact on nearby neighborhoods and businesses? Will casinos kill the horse racing industry? Will organized crime move south from Philadelphia and Atlantic City into Baltimore? Will the proximity of casinos scare off other industries? Will it affect the state's quality of life?

The operative question is whether the state should even consider legalizing casinos. Follow-up concerns come later. Some of these are highly complex matters that probably would take many more months to resolve -- such as determining a process for awarding casino licenses, who will make such decisions, who will police the casinos and how, the number and location of casinos, the type of commission to oversee gambling operations and the extent of its powers, whether this commission should have power over all forms of gambling in Maryland, the state and local taxes, fees and obligations to be imposed on casino operators.

Maryland should not be stampeded by lobbyists and claims by casino operators of a pot of gold for the state treasury and local communities. This is an important matter that could affect all state citizens and their lives. Let's proceed carefully and cautiously, based on a well-documented study of this controversial industry.

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