Three decades ago, Venetoulis was Baltimore County executive but had bigger political plans. As everybody knows, the state’s in pretty bad financial shape now. But these things run in cycles. Back then, Venetoulis looked at Ocean City and saw the promised land — a place to host gambling (for a while) and help balance the state’s financial books.
“And I got killed for it when I brought it up,” Venetoulis said the other night. He laughed ruefully at the memory. These days, he publishes Corridor Inc., a business and political monthly magazine focusing on the Baltimore-Washington corridor. But, back then, he was readying for a run for governor and pondering gambling, and then quickly dropped it.
But the plan sounds pretty interesting today: Slot machines in Ocean City, but only during the off-season. And slots for Western Maryland, where the economy has struggled for a long time.
“You’ve got all those Ocean City hotel owners with empty rooms from Labor Day until the following spring,” said Venetoulis. “I’m not talking about slots during the peak season. They don’t need any help then. But, in the off-season, it’d be a perfect place.”
But, 30 years ago, the idea was quickly tossed aside when the deep thinkers in Ocean City howled their opposition. Across the years, even as Atlantic City brought in casino gambling — and all its attendant money, and all its attendant problems — Ocean City’s leaders have turned thumbs down on any form of gambling there.
“We’re a family atmosphere,” they echoed one another through the years.
Venetoulis now expresses ambivalence about the newest gambling initiatives. But he mentioned his old plan the other night as Gov. O’Malley and Comptroller Franchot lobbed the first grenades in the current fight over slots. The state prepares for a November referendum on legalizing 15,000 slot machines at five locations in Baltimore and Allegheny, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Franchot’s on the steering committee of Marylanders United to Stop Slots, a nonprofit coalition that kicked off its campaign last week. There stood Franchot, with half a dozen slots opponents behind him, including a clergyman, declaring that expanded gambling could do great damage to Maryland’s character.
The key word there would be “expanded,” as the state is already deeply involved in the gambling business with lottery games and their many variations, and its horse race industry.
What came next, though, transcended mere gambling talk.
Never mind Maryland’s character — O’Malley went after Franchot’s. As The Examiner reported, O’Malley said Franchot “has had the wonderful luxury of sitting back and doing nothing to help us restore fiscal responsibility while throwing stones in a hypocritical way at the one piece of this, the 25 percent that is slots — a measure that he once voted for. But he’s not at all ever troubled by his inherent contradictions, and he never saw two sides of an issue that he couldn’t be simultaneously in favor of.”
Those are harsh words from one Democrat toward another. They’re a measure of O’Malley’s frustration trying to balance the budget, and noticing his depressing poll numbers, and gazing at Franchot the way Shakespeare noticed “yon Cassius’ lean and hungry look.”
Not to be overlooked, as well: Franchot’s previous record on gambling. Though he has, by his own contention, been a “consistent opponent” of slots for the past seven years, he was a Montgomery County delegate 10 years ago who co-sponsored a bill seeking a constitutional amendment authorizing slots at 10 locations. The legislation died in committee. Franchot says he has since seen the light on the dangers of slots.
So we march toward the November referendum. Slots proponents point to sky-high revenues enjoyed by Delaware and West Virginia. Opponents point to social problems that seem to tag along.
It leaves us with Venetoulis’ vision from three decades ago: What about Ocean City during the off-season? Think of all those empty hotels from September to May. Think of all those empty boardwalk businesses, all those wintry ghost town images.
Think Ocean City wouldn’t like some help? Think attitudes might have changed over 30 years, with the state’s finances so rocky, and taxes going up, and everybody looking for compromise?