Volume 13, Issue 5 ~ February 3 - February 9, 2005
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A Modest Proposal The future is not slots
by Colin Malloy

Candy, if you put a meter on it we’d all be rich!

Change this line from Terry Southern’s 1958 novel Candy slightly and it fits Maryland’s slots situation pretty well.

Bobby, if you put a meter on them you’ll never have to raise taxes!

Of course, the legislature will have to deal with the issue of illegality first. Illegality and sin.

Sin won America’s most famous morality battle, Prohibition, establishing a principle of sorts. Government retreated from a position of condemnation to one of metering. Meshed to the engine of alcohol sales, its tax meters at all levels now spin steadily. Some jurisdictions go further than others. Montgomery County, for example, recognizing alcohol as a “legal drug … in a class all its own” with “unique social risks and public costs,” has carved out a partial monopoly, allowing distilled spirits to be sold only from its own stores.

Sin metering depends on a government/religion synergy. Despite some interdenominational bickering about minor sins, defining sin is religion’s monopoly. Government usually follows religion’s lead, with money moderating and lubricating the process. If religion labels an activity sinful, it has good metering potential. If it’s also addictive, it has great potential.

Slots, as Gov. Robert Ehrlich must realize, have similar risks and costs. I have a friend, a successful businesswoman, who spends every Friday evening at Charles Town Racetrack, pulling the handle on her machine. That’s her machine, the one at the end of the row next to the ladies room. She’s a smart woman, she knows the odds, and she certainly knows they apply to her. Last year she lost over $20,000 to her machine. West Virginia’s slots meter happily took its cut.

Last fall, the governor staged a joust in his slots crusade at a Cecil County horse farm. There, he described how, without slots at racetracks, Maryland’s horse industry would shrivel, horse farms would be sold for housing developments, sprawl would accelerate and the Chesapeake’s woes would worsen.

Environmentalists claim he’s holding the Bay hostage to slots. His latest gambit, a variation on his approach of a year ago, appears to hold education hostage to slots. But maybe it’s not really a hostage situation, maybe his proposal just doesn’t have enough vision. Maybe a different sin, a different site?

Cecil County is not the right site. With a median household income of $53,550 and only seven percent of its population below the poverty line, it’s too wealthy. No, Somerset County is the site. It has the need. And the tradition.

Before pollution and overharvesting took its toll, Somerset’s economy thrived on the Bay’s oysters, fish and crabs. Now, with the Bay strangling, it’s the poorest county in the state. One in five residents is in poverty, and average household income is less than $30,000.

There’s plenty of precedent for helping counties like Somerset. The legislature created Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort to help Allegany County, the second-poorest county in the state. Allegany sorely needs the jobs Rocky Gap provides, but our tax dollars subsidize every one of them.

Dorchester County has a huge new hotel outside Cambridge, owned and operated by the quasi-public Maryland Department of Economic Development.

The state did try to help Somerset, but the effort, Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, flopped. So far, restoring Crisfield’s fish, oysters, and crabs looks like a long shot. At best, it will be slow, because biological systems don’t change fast.

But laws do.

One cooperative session of the legislature could put Somerset County back in the human fulfillment business. With Crisfield bawdy once more, Somers Cove would boom as Somerset forever inoculated our state against the plague of tax (and fee) hikes.

The future is not slots. That market is becoming glutted as our neighbor states scramble for the gambling dollar. The future is human fulfillment. With bold gubernatorial vision and a rejuvenated entrepreneurial climate in Somerset County, Maryland could stand out from the beslotted crowd.

In our Reno-by-the-Pocomoke, think of the state’s share of the meter.

Malloy writes from the Baltimore suburbs.

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