First comes the slots mess, then comes the slots money - we hope

The Baltimore Sun

Usually, it's the back end of the beast that is the less lovely end. Not so, though, with slots.

Everyone loves the ultimate output of the gambling devices - the hundreds of millions of dollars that will flow into state coffers and that officials promise will go toward education and property tax relief.

But the front end? The whole messy process of deciding which companies get to operate the 15,000 slot machines that voters approved in November, which ones get to take money out of the pockets of people who often can least afford to be feeding the beasts?

Not so much.

Last week, as The Baltimore Sun reported, two top university officials declined to chair the commission that will decide who gets the lucrative licenses, and a third college president similarly said no thanks to one of the seven seats on the panel.

That their universities would benefit from the back end of slots - about half of the total gross revenues will go to K-through-12 public schools and the state's colleges - didn't necessarily make them want any part of the front end. You can be sure, though, that when it comes time to disburse revenues from slots, those college leaders are not going to be quite so hesitant.

But I don't blame them. When it comes to slots, I think many of us are more ambivalent about them than the nearly 3-2 margin by which they passed would suggest.

I voted against the referendum, for many of the reasons you've no doubt heard over the years as slots have been debated - and debated and debated - until finally getting on last month's ballot: The greater toll that slots exact on the poor. The way they divert what is a finite amount of consumer spending from other businesses. The propping up of the fading horse breeding and racing industry.

And yet I wasn't crushed that it passed anyway - some of the gambling money going to Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia would stay home, and the measure seemed pretty well structured, with Maryland getting a better percentage of the take than other states. Plus, who can blithely reject a source of revenue at a time of such dire economic straits?

And no, I won't be refusing the property tax relief that we in Baltimore are supposed to get in exchange for letting slots into the city.

Still, even before the first flashing, clanking machine gobbles its first dollar, slots already seem like something from another time, a solution from the past to problems of an unknowable future. All the projections that were made - on how much revenue they would generate, how many Marylanders would stay home rather than play the machines in surrounding states - seem ever more suspect as unemployment rises, retirement funds shrink and the overall economy spirals downward.

Already, many states from Nevada to Illinois to Connecticut have seen casino revenues drop this year - the exception seems to be Pennsylvania, where slots are still a novelty. If people aren't buying cars or houses or Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies, they obviously are not going to be dropping their dollars into an even less sure thing like a slot machine.

There's no stopping some people from gambling, of course, even in such a stalled economy. And yet these are precisely the people on whose backs we probably shouldn't be balancing the state budget. In the past, in better times, slots seemed less harmful if not totally harmless. A busload of retirees with spare change and cushy retirement incomes, tourists on vacation from reality, good-timers without mortgages? Bring 'em on to the slots parlor.

But with the economy still searching for some still undefined bottom, the reasonable will make the sane choices: paying the mortgage rather than playing slots, buying the necessary things rather than gambling against that sure thing - that the house always wins.

So who will be left in the casinos? The desperate. The hope-against-hopers. The least-cushioned, the ones who will continue to throw good money after bad.

No one knows, of course, what kind of landscape we'll be living in when the slots licenses are handed out, the parlors built and the doors opened for business. Will one in 10 homeowners still be in mortgage trouble, or will it be two or three? Will unemployment be above or below the current 6.7 percent rate? Will any of those 533,000 jobs lost in November turn up somewhere, sometime?

In the face of such looming questions, the whole issue of slots seems oddly trivial, a distraction at a time of layoffs and bankruptcies and bailouts. And yet, they're on their way here, promising payoffs - if not to the gamblers themselves, than to the rest of us, in the way of tax relief and funds for education.

Maybe they can just slip the money under the door, and we won't have to look too closely at where it came from.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad