Just as the elected members of the Maryland General Assembly were poised to make the drive to Annapolis for a special session to take on the issue of gambling, it was announced that the take at the Hollywood Casino in Perryville (the casino Harford County could have had adding to its economy and tax base) saw a year-to-year revenue decrease of 32.4 percent.
As a result, the casino's operators, Penn National Gaming, announced plans to give back to the Maryland Lottery 400 to 500 of its 1,500 slot machines, which generated on average $148.21 last month, the so-called bad revenue month.
A little perspective is in order. Last month marked the opening of the state's largest slots parlor (we hesitate to call them casinos) - the Maryland Live operation at Arundel Mills Mall. Maryland Live is being blamed for siphoning a substantial portion of Hollywood – Perryville's gamblers, resulting in the single-month drop in revenue.
Maryland Live probably did take away from Perryville's substantial haul in July, which still totaled just shy of $6.9 million. There are, however, reasons other than Penn National's stated cost reduction plan for offering to give back 400 to 500 machines. After all, the machines aren't a whole lot different from arcade games, except most arcade games don't bring in nearly $150 a day.
Penn National has good reason to make noises about the bottom of the gambling pot of gold being in sight: Maryland Live is run by a competing gaming company, and the special legislative session that opened this week was called primarily to deal with issues relating to gambling that could well benefit Penn National's competitors.
Then again, the notion that the Maryland gambling market became saturated with the opening of Maryland Live may be true, but that's really not a good reason for the legislature — or the voters, who are likely to be asked to weigh in — to reject the expansion of gambling that's proposed. The issue of whether gambling would be legal in Maryland was decided decades ago with the establishment of a state lottery, and various laws allowing slot machines in fraternal organization clubhouses and casino nights for certain charity organizations. The steps since then to expand lottery and allow off-track betting parlors have simply been expansions in an effort to keep up with the kinds of gambling allowed in other states.
This legislative session supposedly will address the matter of table games, now regarded as somehow less moral than the modern incarnations of one-armed bandits (which have no arms these days), as well as the matter of a proposed Vegas (or American Indian) style casino on the Potomac south ofWashington, D.C.
There's no solid moral argument for a state that already allows gambling the way Maryland does to back off on trying to compete with neighboring states that are offering increasingly more in an effort to siphon more of the gamblers stopping in Perryville and elsewhere in the state.
That said, there is a solid logical argument as to why the Maryland General Assembly shouldn't be having a special session: the issue of gambling is no more special than slot machines outside Las Vegas. This is an issue that should have been dealt with during the regular 90-day session that ended in April, or could be dealt with in the coming session in the winter of 2013.
Sure, any legislation approved by the legislature would be subject to referendum, but that, too, could be arranged in 2013, should the legislature allocate the money to pay for it. It's not like a special session is free of charge to the taxpayers, so there's a cost involved either way.
There's also the flawed reasoning that increasing gambling opportunities now rather than next year will increase the state's gambling tax take, and solve remaining budget problems. That, by the way, was already supposed to have happened, so let's not be too optimistic on that front. For better or worse, Maryland has made it public policy to rely heavily on gambling as a major source of money for public projects and has found that, like every other revenue source, gambling money is not endless.
Further clouding the issue at hand, namely the expansion of gambling in Maryland, is the even less special issue of whether pit bull terriers, so named because they were bred for the deplorable "sport" of dog fighting (conducted in pits), need special legislative dispensation.
In short, the Maryland state government has no business wasting the taxpayers' money on a special session dedicated to subjects so mundane as gambling and the status of a particular breed of dog.
It should have dispensed with the facade limiting gambling when slots parlors were first legalized, or it should wait until the next regular legislative session to deal with an issue that comes up so regularly and that has proven so lackluster when it comes to solving the state's financial problems.