Table games could hit Maryland in March after commission approves new gaming rules

Maryland's casinos will be allowed to open 24 hours a day under new regulations approved Thursday by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission that also relaxed limits on ATMs and lending to gamblers in the facilities.

With the advent of full-scale casino gambling in Maryland after voters approved table games in the November election, the commission is updating the regulatory regime and relaxing some restrictions. The changes also added new rules, including some governing junkets that casinos provide to high-rolling gamblers.

The move is the latest in the state's push to expand gambling and contrasts with a slow-moving process that began when the General Assembly first approved slot machines in 2007.

Five years later, three of six authorized casinos — Hollywood Casino Perryville, Ocean Downs in Berlin and Maryland Live in Hanover — are operating. Three others — in Rocky Gap, Baltimore and Prince George's County — are on schedule to open over the next five years. The Prince George's location was approved through the voter referendum.

Representatives from existing casinos and license-holders for yet-to-open ones — Caesars Entertainment in Baltimore and Evitts Resorts in Rocky Gap — worked with state employees to write the new regulations, and they praised the process.

"They did a great job balancing the need to protect the citizens of the state and working with us," said Bill Hayles, general manager of Hollywood. "They were flexible and they worked quickly."

Joanna Franklin, program director for the University of Maryland's Center on Problem Gambling, said she was surprised that the commission worked in conjunction with casino operators to write regulations but did not seek comments from other stakeholders. She said she did not see a copy of the regulations until this week, and didn't have time to read through the hundreds of pages before the meeting.

She is most concerned by the lack of a lending cap. Casinos that offer credit know they are likely to make the money back when the patron continues gambling, she said, and therefore have lax standards for making a loan.

"You can't go to any other entertainment place and get a loan," she said. "This is preying on people who shouldn't be able to go into that debt."

The regulations will be subject to public comment and could be amended. Thursday's decision keeps casinos on a timeline to introduce table games as early as March, according to lottery director Stephen Martino.

Casino operators pushed for regulations that would allow them to compete with facilities in Delaware and West Virginia, where the regulatory regime is considered more relaxed. Maryland used Pennsylvania's law as its template.

Under the new regulations, casino operators will no longer have to adhere to strict rules limiting how much they can lend to gamblers and where they can place ATMs.

According Charles LeBoy, Maryland's assistant director for gaming, the "No. 1 complaint" from casino operators about existing rules was a $5,000 cap on loans to customers. Casinos said they have research capabilities that allow them to assess whether a patron could afford to pay back the loan.

That cap has been eliminated from the regulations, but the state will still implement controls to prevent casinos from lending more that a patron can afford based on an analysis of his or her credit and bank accounts.

The commission compromised on how far ATMs must be from the gaming floor, cutting back the required distance from 15 feet to 10 feet. And it changed the ratio of ATMs to video terminals and gaming tables. Previously, the state had allowed one ATM for every 175 video lottery terminals, or slot machines. That ratio has dropped to 1-for-125, with each seat at a table game counting toward the total. Casino operators had wanted a 1-to-100 ratio.

The commission also allowed casinos to offer junkets but would have oversight over them. J. Kirby Fowler, chairman of the commission, expressed concern that the junkets could be "predatory."

While the state proposed requiring one supervisor for every four table games, operators wanted one for every eight. The sides compromised at one for every six. The commission also approved a test that dealers must pass, instead of mandating a specific number of training hours.

In addition, LeBoy wrote guidelines for blackjack and craps, and will do so for 13 other table games. He said the rules will serve as a baseline for commission members to use as they assess proposals from individual casinos for different versions of common games that may create more of an advantage for the house.

Hayles and Chad Barnhill, general manager of the Horseshoe-brand casino Caesars plans to build on Russell Street, said the regulations probably don't need major adjustments.

Rob Norton of Maryland Live and Joe Cavilla of Ocean Downs said they still feel the document needs to be tweaked, but declined to discuss their concerns.

Norton, president and general manager of the Cordish Cos.-owned property, said he will "move as quickly as possible" to get table games in operation. The casino is interviewing thousands of potential employees this week and will begin minor construction to reconfigure the gaming floor in January.

Hiring will continue with job fairs seeking experienced table game dealers in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J., and new employees will begin applying for state-mandated licenses by February. The state has committed to making 16 hires to process those applications. Maryland Live plans to stay open 24 hours a day starting Dec. 27.

Hollywood Casino, which is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., and Ocean Downs requested permission to stay open from Friday morning until Sunday night, but will otherwise continue to close on weeknights until they feel they can support extra hours.

For Hollywood, officials said that could come as soon as table games are introduced. The casino has held open houses for those interested in attending the dealer school it will run, and plans to hire 100 to 120 new employees in hopes of a spring launch.

Ocean Downs, which cannot accommodate table games without a renovation, might ask for more hours of operation during the busy summer season, Cavilla said. He said the casino was not ready to reveal when it would begin construction and had no timetable in place for including table games.

Both table games and 24-hour operations were approved in November's election, when 52 percent of Marylanders voted for expanded gambling after a hotly contested campaign in which supporters and opponents spent more than $93 million.

Penn National fought Question 7, saying it would not benefit Maryland's schools to the extent supporters said it would. MGM, which hopes to open the Prince George's casino, led a group that accused Penn National of trying to protect its interests in nearby states.

Penn National has filed a lawsuit contending that the referendum should be thrown out, and many of the state's casino interests have intervened in the suit.