- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Gambling foes who cheered a House decision last spring to delay a slot machine bill for a study by the Ways and Means Committee now fear the panel is looking only at where to put machines, not whether the state should legalize them.

“It’s like a done deal that we’re going to have slots,” said Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairman of NOcasiNO Maryland, an organization of anti-gambling activists.

The committee plans to submit recommendations to the House of Delegates in January on what Maryland should do about slot machines. Meanwhile, members are touring the state and holding public hearings to get comments on the issue.

Anti-gambling activists are worried about the itinerary, which has the committee visiting racetracks and other potential sites for slot machines.

Miss Knickelbein questioned why the committee had not called academic researchers and economists to talk about the consequences of gambling, such as bankruptcies, crime and gambling addiction.

Other opponents of slot machines share Miss Knickelbein’s concerns.

“They are treating it as if [slots] are a foregone conclusion,” said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, which represents a group of churches, labor unions and community groups.

Mr. Hucker expected the Ways and Means Committee would bring in independent researchers who had studied the social costs of casino-style gambling and the effects that slot machines would have on other businesses.

Sheila Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the committee, said members already have a stack of reports and studies about gambling’s effects.

“At this point, we’re just trying to gather public sentiment,” she said.

Miss Hixson said representatives for the racing industry and University of Maryland Baltimore County economics professor John Carpenter had spoken at a committee hearing, too.

Mr. Carpenter’s study was critical of the plan supported by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the state Senate to put 11,500 machines at Bowie, Pimlico and Laurel tracks and at a proposed track in Allegany County. The study said Maryland probably could get a better deal by putting machines at other locations.

The study did not delve deeply into the social costs of gambling.

“Little if anything is known about the additional social costs that would be introduced by slots,” Mr. Carpenter said at the hearing.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, played a pivotal role in killing Mr. Ehrlich’s bill in April after it had passed the Senate. The governor has said he will not introduce a bill again and will not spend money on behalf of slot machine legislation if Mr. Busch continues to oppose it.

Mr. Busch said the House needs a better plan if the state does authorize expanded gambling.

“I clearly see our job as coming back and giving the best snapshot or picture that gaming could be in the state if, in fact, it were implemented,” he said.

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