Maryland lawmakers are poised this week to transform the state's restrictive gambling law into one that allows six full-blown Vegas-style casinos, complete with roulette wheels and poker tables open 24 hours a day.
It's a long way from the legislation that squeaked through the General Assembly five years ago, when the state cracked open the door to gambling. Then, Gov.Martin O'Malleypromised a "limited" program: five slots-only casinos whose sizes would be kept in check by the nation's highest casino tax rate.
The expansion the General Assembly is considering in its special session would mark a significant philosophical shift — one favored by the industry. Rather than slots halls, the legislation envisions big gambling-and-entertainment destinations that stand to attract more customers from across the economic spectrum.
"They really are considering restructuring the whole model," said William R. Eadington, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming.
Gerron Levi, a formerPrince George's Countydelegate who voted against gambling in 2007, said she believes most lawmakers never intended for the state to move so far so fast.
"The notion that we would move so quickly to full-scale Las Vegas casinos throughout the state was not comprehended, understood or embraced at the time," Levi said.
While opponents tried to argue back in 2007 that Maryland would eventually expand gambling, she said, "the governor and others who sold this said otherwise."
The state's current gambling law already allows for 15,000 slot machines, which are a major part of any casino. When fully operational, the number of slots at the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills and the one planned for downtown Baltimore will put them among the nation's 15 largest commercial casinos.
The governor's bill would authorize a new casino inPrince George's County— it, too, would make the top 15 — and an unlimited amount of table games at all six sites. If it is approved by the legislature, voters will have the final say in a referendum this November.
Were all six casinos fully up and running, legislative analysts project the state would have the ninth-highest consumer spending on gambling in the country — in league with Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, respectively home to 10, 12 and 18 casinos.
O'Malley, who said last week he is "so sick" of the issue, says he's pushing the legislation partly to quiet the drumbeat for more gambling so state leaders can move on to address other pressing matters.
He and other gambling supporters, led by Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller, also say they want to make Maryland's casinos competitive with surrounding states' and gain the tax revenue and jobs that can come from expansion.
Boosters of a proposed site at the National Harbor development, on the Potomac River in Prince George's County, say the glitzy casino that MGM Resorts wants to build there would be an especial plus for the state's economy.
The location near Washington offers "this unique opportunity, with the nation's capital, to be a destination facility," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who supports expansion.
Critics of the governor's proposal say that a sixth casino would saturate the market and encourage gambling addiction, all for very little new revenue.
Alan R. Woinski, an analyst who has worked as a gambling industry consultant in other states, said a new casino at National Harbor could be a "scud missile" that blows up the market for existing venues along with the state's projected revenue from casino taxes.
He pointed to a new mega-casino that opened recently in the Chicago area, which he said took business away from eight others in two states.
"Every casino that opens now is a disaster for existing casinos," Woinski said.
But he said Maryland politicians are following a predictable pattern: First, pledging to fund programs with gambling revenues. When the projections fall short — as they have in Maryland — there is a push to do more. "They expand," Woinski said. "They start adding table games."
Some opponents cite the social ills that can be associated with expanded gambling. Tables games such as baccarat, blackjack and craps appeal to adults under 30, those most at risk of developing gambling problems, said Joanna Franklin, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling.
Roughly 3.4 percent Marylanders have a "serious gambling problem," and for those under 30, the number doubles to 6.8 percent, according to a gambling prevalence study last year by the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Having 24-hour operations would mean the "sickest of the sick" would no longer have a built-in break, Franklin said. Such gambling addicts will sit at slot machines for 36 hours straight, neglecting food, drink and even medications. Eventually, they pass out.
"They slide off the machines," Franklin said. "People have to carry them out of the casinos."
Such concerns were heard more often in past gambling debates in Maryland. In 1998, a sitting governor — Democrat Parris N. Glendening — won re-election by a solid margin running on a policy of "No Casinos, No Slots, No Exceptions."
That year a Baltimore Sun poll found just 39 percent of respondents were in favor of allowing slot machines at racetracks, the only locations seriously under discussion in Annapolis.
Many lawmakers who've been cool in the past to gambling say they've adjusted their position as the public has become more receptive. They point to the 2008 referendum that asked state voters whether slot machines should be allowed at five locations. The measure passed with 58 percent of the vote, and won a majority in each of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore.
"The message I got from that vote was very clear," said Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "We would rather have gambling than higher taxes."
In a sluggish economy, union leaders have been working the halls in Annapolis to drum up support for the governor's bill. The proposed National Harbor casino would mean 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 "good paying" permanent service jobs, they say.
The argument that it and other casinos, able to offer table games and other amenities, could attract or keep tourists in the state has gotten attention in Annapolis.
The governor's bill would encourage investment in the casinos, supporters of the measure say, by significantly reducing the tax rate for the three largest casinos if they met some conditions.
"We are moving toward destination resort casinos," said James Karmel, a gambling analyst and associate professor of history at Harford Community College. "Destination resorts as opposed to commuter-type casinos. People will come for a couple days instead of a couple hours."
"It is an important shift. We will see how it works," Karmel said.
Gambling in Maryland
1743 Horse race wagering first regulated in Maryland.
1912 Pari-mutuel betting introduced.
1937 Slot machines first authorized for use in Maryland.
1968 Legislative ban on slots, common in Southern Maryland, takes effect.
1972 State lottery established through constitutional amendment.
1990 Slot machines legalized in West Virginia.
1995 Slots come to Delaware.
1995 Tydings Commission recommends prohibition on slot machines and other forms of gambling expansion.
1996 Gov. Parris N. Glendening vows no slots in Maryland.
2003 Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launches a lobbying effort to promote slots legislation, but loses first of several attempts to pass gambling bills
2006 Slots come to Pennsylvania.
2007 Gov.Martin O'Malley and legislature agree to let voters decide slots question.
2008 Maryland voters approve law allowing five slots-only casinos.
2012 General Assembly considers gambling expansion bill.
Source: Sun Archive