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Can state avoid lure of casinos? Other proposals to aid poor areas may be too radical


MARYLAND'S governor warned last week against "the siren song" of easy money piped in by the moguls of casino gambling.

Ah, but how to resist when the melody is sweet and the lyrics beguiling?

They promise relief to a failing city faced with deep welfare cuts and offer an alternative to longer-term gains from such painful approaches as raising taxes or dispersing Baltimore's poor to surrounding jurisdictions.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke swear they are 1,000 percent against gaming parlors, but the fiscal and political pressure on them to relent is immense.

Their treasuries are shrinking. Their campaign contributors want gambling. And some of their constituents in Baltimore may find blackjack tables less threatening than, say, the 30 percent reduction in welfare benefits forecast by the state last week to account for reduced federal aid.

Mr. Glendening and Mr. Schmoke hope they can solve their money problems the old-fashioned way.

"I know it is tempting to fantasize about a quick $100 million in revenue from casinos," the governor said last week. "Personally, I think we should place our bets on good fiscal management, education and hard work."

He will be asked to add to that list: fundamental change in the social organization of city and suburb, unprecedented political risk-taking and intergroup sensitivity.

A study to be published officially today by the Abell Foundation says Baltimore is one of those U.S. cities slipping beyond help. The dribs and drabs of government money are futile even here, where the study's author, David Rusk, says government money has been well-spent.

If Baltimore is beyond hope, why not try gambling? What is there to lose? One of the most thorough analyses of casinos and their impact on communities says they should be permitted only in areas without hope for economic development: Is that, increasingly, a definition of Baltimore?

In a sense, many businesses have already said it is. They've left, taking more than 60,000 jobs with them over the past five years or so. Banks are leaving. Insurance companies are leaving downtown. Even the gas company is building a new headquarters outside the city.

Is there any help for these losses? Mr. Rusk recommends reducing the city's social and fiscal trauma by redistributing the poor. Baltimore cannot be saved as now constituted, he suggests. Its most dependent citizens must be moved over time new housing scattered throughout the metropolitan region.

In what may prove an understatement, he writes: "Sharing the burden of poverty is a more daunting political task than it is a heavy social or economic burden. At the center of the 'urban problem' are the toughest political issues in American society -- poverty and race. Local officials may be willing to take care of their own poor, [but] local officials never voluntarily agree to take care of their neighbors' poor."

Yet, if suburban leaders could be persuaded that providing for the poor was in the best interests of the region -- making the city stronger, helping it retain jobs, safeguarding cultural institutions and hospitals -- the city might help poor tenants move to Howard, Anne Arundel or Baltimore counties.

Few friends anywhere

Mr. Rusk will have a chance to convince a variety of audiences -- including the one in Baltimore City Hall, where critics say his idea is bigoted, half-baked and naive. Mayor Schmoke and others in his administration are not eager to embrace a proposal that suggests poor African-American families must be shipped to the suburbs to save themselves and the city.

In the preface to "Baltimore Unbound," Mr. Rusk writes: "There may be those -- black and white -- who take offense at the racial focus of this report's analysis and characterizations, but solving Baltimore City's constant decline must begin with frank discussion of poverty and race."

What he implies is that poor people of any race, similarly hobbled by such isolation, would have difficulty rising without help.

His analysis and his remedies are being presented when the dialogue about urban problems and about aid to the poor is virtually nonexistent. Thus, even if his idea is rejected, its sponsors hope it will become a stepping-off point for a new look at the city's present and future.

"Our concern is that there isn't much of a discussion about alternative directions for the region," said Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Abell Foundation, which paid for the Rusk study.

Mr. Embry observes that the courts have ruled in other parts of the country that certain suburban zoning restrictions unconstitutionally impinge on the movement of poor and low-income families.

And last week, the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore and the federal government settled a lawsuit over concentration of poor and minority group members in city public housing. The agreement gives 1,300 families housing vouchers for use in the city -- or surrounding counties with fewer poor residents.

Mr. Rusk says his approach could take decades to help even if it were adopted, which is by no means likely. Against that prospect, the volume of gaming's song rises higher in the background.

Four of five former chairmen of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce urged Mr. Glendening last week to move forward with casinos before other states beat him to the loot. The governor's home county, Prince George's, is a thicket of so-called charitable gambling, yet he urged caution.

The dilemma: How to stand by principle as fiscal circumstances and the needs of your allies urge you to dance?

Mr. Glendening may have concluded that the public is so opposed to casinos that supporting them would be suicidal -- but he may still have to find more money to help Mr. Schmoke and the voters in Baltimore without whom he cannot be re-elected. Politicians almost always choose incremental solutions over revolution: Gambling revenue will look better than reshuffling people.

Looking for 'cover'

If Maryland's political leaders conclude that gambling is the best immediate solution to Maryland's money problems, they will need "cover" to escape their promises to oppose it. And cover is on the way: Mr. Rusk's findings, for example.

And there are other pressures to choose the easier route.

The City of Baltimore gave financial help last week to John Paterakis, a politically potent businessman, who is developing marinas, condominiums and office space along the harbor in East Baltimore.

An active contributor to campaigns with many connections among public officials, Mr. Paterakis and his investment partners in government might love to see casinos bringing customers for his many enterprises.

Surely, the beat will go on.

:. C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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