- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

As Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly today begin a high-decibel debate about slot machines, residents of Prince George's County cannot afford to remain silent.
How to get the community involved in the debate over slot machines at county and state racetracks is of great concern to opponents and proponents alike.
Radamase Cabrera, a longtime Clinton activist, spent Saturday "the eve of the battle" attending two meetings in the jurisdictions where two of those racetracks, Rosecroft and Laurel, are located.
Though he recognized that the inclement weather was a deterrent, he was nonetheless disheartened by the lack of community participation in the meetings billed as informational sessions by elected county officials and community leaders trying to drum up support for or against slots.
Only 30 people showed up for an afternoon meeting sponsored by an umbrella group led by "Stop Slots" and the Maryland Progressives at From the Heart Ministries in Temple Hills. Earlier in the day, approximately 70 people listened to county legislators pushing the governor's gambling initiative designed to generate millions to offset a huge budget deficit during a breakfast meeting at the Best Western hotel in Oxon Hill.
However, Mr. Cabrera does not blame county residents for their absence; rather, he blames county officials. They are not providing the public awareness campaign, mass mailings or town hall meetings on the gambling issue that will have a substantial and disproportionate impact on black residents.
"Why is it that when it comes time to vote, they send you all kind of fliers and mailings but on an important issue like this, nothing," Mr. Cabrera wondered aloud. "We should all be jamming Prince George's Community College with a big town hall meeting to ask our representatives what's going on and what they are doing."
At the outset of our conversation, Mr. Cabrera made his position crystal clear: He is opposed to what politicians are calling "video slots." His primary opposition is on moral grounds.
"I don't think it's a good idea to build the social fabric of a community on the back of a social ill," he said. "What sense does it make to have someone lose their $150,000 house in Fort Washington because of a gambling addiction to buy textbooks for Friendly High School?" Secondly, Mr. Cabrera is opposed because the local jurisdictions would be stripped of their regulatory control as the bill is currently written.
An urban planner, he becomes most agitated while discussing the life safety and zoning issue involved in placing slot machines in the existing tracks. Those permit and zoning variances should take up to 18 months to process, and the state has placed slots on the fast track.
"How are you going to bring in 3,000 electrical devices and plug them into falling-down buildings?" he asked. "Are the governor and state leadership willing to put the need to make money over the lives of citizens of Prince George's? Everybody thinks it's a done deal, but will somebody end up dead because of the done deal?" Third, the residents most affected have no sway in the process or site selection.
Rosecroft, he notes, is surrounded by middle-class homes in Oxon Hill.
"Will that bring economic development or crime and congestion?" Mr. Cabrera asked. He also suggests that if economic development is a goal of placing slots in black neighborhoods, as proponents promise, then why not choose different sites that would actually bring "true economic development" like Eagle Harbor that needs jobs and an increased tax base. Last, but not least, Mr. Cabrera argues that the necessary state revenue that slots promise could be generated in other ways either by closing corporate loopholes or raising the sales tax by a penny.
He calls slots "a tax on people addicted to gambling."
For his money, he prefers a year's moratorium on slots to further study their impact and implementation because he doesn't relish the prospect of "National Harbor being turned into Las Vegas."
"Is the state going to write legislation to bring full-blown gambling to Maryland?" he wonders. Maryland leaders have proposed placing thousands of slot machines in predominantly black communities in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore city. Some worry that slots will have an adverse impact because a disproportionate number of the poor and minorities engage in high-risk gambling activities.
"Black communities didn't ask for slots and black people did not vote for Ehrlich," said Mr. Cabrera, a Democrat. "If the white community who voted for him wants slots, then why not put them in Garrett or Queen Anne's County or on the Eastern Shore where he won?"
However, black political and religious leaders are at odds about the Republican governor's proposals. Some, like Mr. Cabrera and Delegates Anthony G. Brown and Joanne C. Benson, both Prince George's Democrats, are opposed, fearing an adverse impact.
Others such as U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, who is calling for licensing set-asides believe that slots are inevitable and Maryland's black residents should broker the best deal for their communities to enhance economic development and partnerships. Those, like state Delegate Obie Patterson, are neutral.
"We should not be acting like it's a done deal and we don't have any say in what happens [with slots]," Mr. Cabrera says to hammer home his point. "It's a shame our representatives are being so unresponsive to us."


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