ANNAPOLIS – Heard the one about the rabbi, the minister and the research geneticist? How about the veterinarian, the hospital and the racing entertainment company?
No, they’re not jokes — they’re the double-take-inspiring coalitions on opposing sides in Maryland’s gambling debate, which even has anti-gambling activists assembling in a hotel owned by casino proponents.
These loose, unusual alliances are making their cases before the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee as it visits potential gambling sites around the state. Tuesday the committee visited tracks in Laurel and Baltimore and heard testimony at Morgan State University. The next stop is the Eastern Shore on Oct. 21.
At Pimlico in northwest Baltimore, the panel heard from the Sinai Hospital board chairwoman, who sided with track owners.
“We really believe you would be making a terrible error in not placing slots here,” Ronnie Footlick told the committee.
Footlick backed Magna Entertainment Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club, which together own Pimlico and Laurel Park race tracks. Magna also owns a horse racing television channel, an off-track betting network and about a dozen other tracks including one in Ontario, Canada.
Footlick, who said she goes to Atlantic City, N.J., to gamble about twice a year, called claims of gambling’s social costs “over the top,” telling critics, “Dorothy, this is not Kansas.”
Sinai, a racetrack neighbor, is also eager to be the administrator for slot machine revenues slated for the community, Footlick said.
“Basically, they’re getting a pool of money to use as a grant writing pool,” said anti-gambling activist Aaron Meisner, who lives in the nearby Mount Washington neighborhood.
Although Sinai has done “fantastic” things in the community, Meisner said, “I don’t think they’re taking reasonable care in examining what the impact is going to be.”
Veterinarian and lifelong Democrat Carol D. Swandby is no fan of slots, but she wants to see them at Maryland tracks.
Swandby told the committee she sees slots as a necessary evil to keep Maryland’s horse racing industry alive. If racing falters, she said, she’ll probably move out of state and developers will get her land in New Market where she’s building a barn for her two horses.
“When I bought it, it had already been subdivided,” Swandby said. “If I have to sell, I will make money. But I would prefer not to sell.”
Rabbi Moshe Hauer of the Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood also testified Tuesday on behalf of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore, an Orthodox Jewish group.
“Organized gambling, whatever revenues it generates, is not going to bring advantages to our state,” Hauer said later. The social and financial costs “far outweigh the benefits,” he said.
Although his congregation meets near Pimlico, Hauer said it isn’t a not-in-my-backyard issue. His group opposes gambling “even if it’s going to be in Laurel.”
“This is bad public policy and must not be passed,” agreed the Rev. Robert Walker of the Elderslie-St. Andrews United Methodist Church. Poor community members will try to make ends meet by gambling, which could be disastrous, he said.
Mount Washington resident Sarah South, a research geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, also pointed to local impacts.
“I have no intentions of raising my children near casinos,” said South, who has a daughter.
Anti-gambling activists also learned Tuesday they had been sleeping in casino backers’ beds — literally.
An anti-gambling coalition selected the Holiday Inn at Baltimore/Washington International Airport for its Sept. 26 and 27 national conference. But the group’s Maryland hosts were surprised to see the hotel’s general manager, Scott Koster, testify on behalf of hotel owners Tuesday about the benefits of casino-style gambling venues.
Kim Roman, co-chairwoman of conference hosts NOcasiNO Maryland, said her group didn’t know they were giving business to a gambling supporter.
“I’m not really happy with that,” Roman said, but of the three hotels near the airport with sufficient space, “They gave us the best price.”
Koster said he hadn’t heard any negative comments from the anti-gambling group — “Just compliments on the service we provided to them while they were here.”