By BRIAN WITTE
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Maryland lawmakers are still waiting for the big payout from the Legislature's gamble more than four years ago on legalized slot machines. To truly hit the jackpot, though, some lawmakers believe the state must expand gambling further, through table games and a Washington-area casino, to be competitive with nearby states and generate the dollars needed for education and other needs.
When the General Assembly voted in 2007 to let voters decide whether to allow up to 15,000 slot machines at five casinos in the state, supporters touted it as a sure-fire way to bring in millions for education, shore up the state's horse-racing industry, and avoid painful cuts and tax increases.
Voters approved slot machines at five casinos in 2008. But so far, only 2,300 slot machines have been turned on at two locations, off Interstate 95 and on the Eastern Shore. State analysts have reduced projected revenues amid bad economic times, competition for gambling dollars from neighboring states and delays in developing three other casinos.
Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, said Maryland came in at the tail end of the racing wave. That's when neighboring states put slot machines at horse racing tracks, which accommodated slots with little capital investment. Now, states are more interested in job creation, which can be enhanced by table games that require dealers.
"I don't think Maryland gaming policy can be as successful as they anticipate unless they move into that direction and maybe even more," said Barrow, an expert on state gambling policies, noting that other states have also added hotels to the mix.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who led the push in late 2007 for a constitutional amendment to legalize slot machines after years of legislative gridlock on the issue, acknowledged recently that a number of factors "came together in a perfect storm to delay our ramp up of this long-debated issue,"
The Democrat, who was a reluctant backer of slots, is quick to note that the state's first casino in Perryville, which opened in 2010, is doing well now. And he said bidders for casinos in Baltimore and Rocky Gap State Park appear on track to receive licenses after failed bids by others earlier. The state's largest casino, in Anne Arundel County, is scheduled to open this summer.
"I think it's moving forward pretty well now," O'Malley, who hasn't endorsed expanding gambling further, said this month of the current slot machine effort in the state.
While O'Malley never said slot machine revenue would enable the state to avoid tax increases, some slots backers alluded to the anticipated revenue as a way to head off taxes when they were trying to build support for the referendum. Now, as Maryland tries to close a $1.1 billion budget shortfall and lawmakers again weigh tax increases proposed by O'Malley to find revenue, state officials are keenly feeling the pressure to allow table games such as blackjack and craps. Some feel the games are needed to keep up with gambling venues in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"Politics is like war," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, told local officials at a conference last month, referring to the need to adjust state policy on gambling. "You hold on to your own, but take from somebody else."
Miller has expressed interest in authorizing a casino in Prince George's County near Washington to draw customers from the nation's capital and Virginia, and he supports allowing table games to better compete with other states.
Legislation was recently filed in Annapolis to allow table games and a casino in Prince George's, but it remains unclear whether there is enough support in the county or the statehouse. Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker has expressed support for a $1 billion high-end casino next to the Potomac River at National Harbor. Even if a bill were to pass, the measure would require state residents to approve it in a November referendum.
Delaware, which has been drawing Maryland gamblers for years, already is bracing for its neighbor's efforts to keep gamblers in Maryland. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell last year supported a proposal to expand gambling beyond the state's three casinos, but now he says his goal is to ensure the stability of the state's existing gambling industry.
Despite Maryland's slow start-up, the state is reaping benefits from its two casinos.
So far, they have grossed a total of about $196 million. Of that, $95 million has been set aside for schools, and about $65 million has gone to the casino operators. About $14 million has been set aside for horse racing purses, and $11 million has gone to local impact grants.