Slots under scrutiny


Gambling is the child of avarice, the brother of inequity and the father of mischief.

-George Washington, Letters, Jan. 15, 1783

IN THE spring of 1994, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appointed me to what came to be called the Baltimore Casino Gambling Commission.

The charge given to the group by the mayor was to decide whether casino gambling would be good for the city. The commission was chaired by a local judge and included a faculty member of the University of Maryland Law School, myself and several other prominent members of the community.

A year later, I had concluded in a letter to Mr. Schmoke as a member of the commission that casino gambling would not be a good idea for Baltimore, nor for the state - with or without slots. I continue to hold that view.

It is astounding and perplexing to me that no one in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appears to be aware of the commission's work nor of the effort of a similar gambling committee formed around the same time by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

As part of my job on the commission that year, I visited casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Windsor, Ontario, riverboat cities along the Mississippi and various casinos on Indian property in Arizona and Nevada. I learned:

Rarely are studies conducted to discover what impact casino gambling might have on local communities. Traffic patterns, road closures and losses to small businesses, for example, are rarely studied or discussed before slots are introduced. If we are to have slots in Maryland, we must first figure out the costs to motorists and to small business owners and their customers.

No matter where casinos have arisen in North America, gambling has changed certain patterns of crime, particularly in urban areas. Chief among these crimes are prostitution, rape and assault. In some communities that have introduced slots, prostitution arrests have doubled. Studies on the cost of gambling to the police are never explored beforehand. They ought to be.

Wherever slot machines and casinos are to be found, or are about to be built, they are followed - usually within days - by the influx of gambling industry money.

Within days of announcing the existence of the Baltimore commission, a lobbyist for the gambling industry attended our first meeting. The Sun reported recently that, over the past few years, Mr. Ehrlich has accepted more than $100,000 from the gambling industry. This kind of largess to national and state office-holders can be found wherever casinos have arisen across the country.

Wherever one finds urban slots and casinos, a large percentage of the players are poor. This is also true of state lotteries. But rarely is a proportionate amount of money returned by the state to those areas where it was spent. Casinos, slots and lotteries are regressive taxes.

The rise of gambling disorders in America has been on the increase since the 1970s. In some communities with slots, the percentage of people with both alcohol dependency and a gambling addiction is surprisingly high. This is particularly true when slots are found on Indian reservations.

In none of the places where casino gambling and slots exist in North America was it possible to predict what the revenue might be.

Over the past several months, Governor Ehrlich many times has suggested that slots revenue would be a major way to eliminate the state's fiscal deficit. If he is right, he would be the first person in the history of the gambling industry to possess this kind of omniscience. Mark Twain once said that there are many scapegoats for our blunders, but the most popular one is being able to tell the future. Mr. Ehrlich should heed that advice.

All of these objections, of course, say nothing of the fact that the state should not be in the gambling business. Many local religious leaders have expressed moral concerns about casinos and slots. To date, however, we have heard nothing from the Ehrlich administration about how it would respond to those ethical concerns.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame, where he is executive director of the Institute for Public Philosophy.

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