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NewsOpinionEditorial

Slots brinkmanship

ElectionsNational GovernmentBudgets and BudgetingRushern BakerWoodrow Wilson

There's no question that the National Harbor development in Prince George's Countyhas the potential to be an extremely successful casino site. It already has an upscale mix of restaurants and hotels, and it boasts an excellent location on the Potomac River just outside of Washington, D.C., and just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Northern Virginia. If Prince George's County officials had been supportive of slots when Maryland's gambling program was designed five years ago, the final product might have looked much different.

They weren't, and now the state is moving ahead, however haltingly, with five casinos in other locations. Those in Perryville and at Ocean Downs are up and running — and have experienced a recent uptick in revenue — and the state's marquee facility at Arundel Mills Mall will open its doors this summer. A license for a slots parlor in the perennially money-losing Rocky Gap resort is likely to be awarded within days, and one for a Baltimore casino could be granted by the end of June. It will not be long before the state gets a real sense of its place in the gambling marketplace.

That's what makes the last-minute machinations surrounding the expansion of Maryland gambling in this General Assembly session so perplexing. Although there are some genuine issues left to resolve in the debate over the state budget, it is clear that what's really holding things up is the Senate's insistence on moving ahead this year with legislation that could lead to a Prince George's casino. Senators appear intent on getting a referendum to allow a National Harbor casino (and with it, the legalization of table games throughout the state) on the 2012 ballot. Failing to pass a gambling bill before this legislative session ends would mean voters could not approve it until 2014 at the earliest.

That would be no great tragedy. It would give the state time to take measure of the gambling program it has and to make any expansion the product of a considered, deliberative process, not 11th-hour deal making.

The Senate's initial attempt to expand Maryland's gambling program was larded with hundreds of millions in giveaways to casino operators. Members of the House of Delegates responded with an equally fanciful idea that would have allowed a table games at the existing slots parlors and a table games-only facility at National Harbor. Now the Senate is back with a new proposal. It is impossible to quibble with the details of the latest bill because it doesn't include any. The idea, apparently, is that voters should approve table games and a Prince George's casino at the ballot box this fall without knowing how the money would be split up between the casinos, the state and local jurisdictions, among other things. All that would be left up to the legislature to figure out at some later date. A House committee is scheduled to take up the legislation early this morning.

What's really going on here is that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, long a supporter of slots in general and in Prince George's County in particular, is seeking to maximize the opportunity presented by Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker's recent change of heart in favor of gambling. There is no policy reason that the state should not consider the matter of table games — much less the state budget — separately from the question of whether Maryland authorizes a sixth casino site at National Harbor. The way the current Senate bill is written makes that fact even more plain. It would allow table games at existing slots sites as soon as a referendum is passed and the General Assembly approves enabling legislation. But the bill calls for a Prince George's casino license to be awarded no earlier than July 1, 2015.

Why, then, is it so important that the voters decide the matter in 2012 instead of 2014? Because allowing a vote on table games by itself would cause Prince George's slots backers' leverage to evaporate. A straight-up table games bill would likely fly through the legislature and be approved by the voters, and they know it.

But even that would demand substantially more consideration than the General Assembly can give it at this late date. There is little doubt that Maryland, like Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, will eventually allow full casinos. And given that table games produce more employment and attract a more affluent clientele than slots, they would likely be an improvement for the state's existing gambling program. But voters should know the details before they are asked to vote on the matter, and there is simply no time in this legislative session to hold the hearings and debates that would be necessary to develop them.

And it's not like the General Assembly doesn't have other things to do today. Far more important are the tax increases and spending cuts legislators will need to approve to balance next year's budget. When lawmakers convene this morning, they should get to work on that and leave the debate on expanding Maryland's gambling program until after its existing one is fully underway.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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