The issue of casino gambling, largely absent from the General Assembly's agenda for the past five years, could return to Annapolis in 2018.
Joe Weinberg, head of the company that operates Maryland Live Casino & Hotel in Anne Arundel County, said Tuesday that he is "all in" for an effort to legalize sports betting at Maryland's six casinos.
Weinberg, chief executive of Cordish Global Gaming, urged members of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight to take up the issue in 2018 so that a constitutional amendment may be put on next year's general election ballot.
Maryland's gambling laws permitting casinos take the form of constitutional amendments, which are put to voters, who ultimately decide.
It's not clear that Maryland lawmakers share the industry's sense of urgency. Del. Frank Turner, the gaming committee's House co-chair, said legislation to allow sports betting will likely find a sponsor, but he's not sure it will pass next year.
"If we don't move on it in '18, we can move on it in '20," the Howard County Democrat said.
Weinberg warned that Maryland's competitors for casino tax dollars already are lining up to change their laws in case the Supreme Court rules on a pending case to allow more states to offer sports betting.
"If we wait for 100 percent clarity on federal law, we will be two to three years behind the surrounding states," he said. Weinberg said it is important that Maryland's casinos can continue to offer what he called "a full suite of gaming services."
Federal law bans sports betting in most states. New Jersey has challenged the law, arguing that it usurps states' rights and prevents elected state officials from responding to their constituents' gambling preferences.
The high court is scheduled to hear the challenge in its current term. A decision isn't expected until spring, possibly after the legislature's annual 90-day session ends in April.
The owners of the state's three largest casinos — Maryland Live, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore and MGM National Harbor in Prince George's County — say states should have authority to sanction sports bets.
"We support legal, regulated sports betting, which today is permitted in different forms in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana," Caesars Entertainment, owner of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, said in a statement before the Super Bowl.
MGM Resorts, owner of MGM National Harbor, said its "longstanding position is that sports betting should be legalized outside of Nevada in those states that choose to offer it, with strong oversight that protects consumers and the integrity of the sports themselves."
President George H.W. Bush signed the ban in 1992. Nevada and several other states received exemptions because they already offered some form of sports betting.
Before the Super Bowl last February, the American Gaming Association estimated that $4.7 billion would be bet on the game — 97 percent of it illegally.
Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs for the casino industry group, said sports betting generally contributes less than 2 percent of the revenue in the casinos that offer it.
Weinberg agreed that sports betting by itself is not a big money-maker for casinos. He told the committee the real payoff is in how they increase the number of visits to casinos.
Once in the door, Weinberg said, sports bettors go on to play the other games. In Las Vegas, he said, some casinos enjoy some of their best days around such events as the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball tournament and soccer's World Cup.
Weinberg predicted that sports betting could mean an additional 1.5 million visits a year to Maryland Live and generate $100 million in new revenue. That would mean more tax revenue for the state.
Slane told lawmakers that if they want to shut down the black market in sports betting, the key is to make sure they adopt a competitive tax rate. She agreed with Weinberg that other states are poised to offer sports betting if the Supreme Court allows it, and urged Maryland lawmakers to "get in front of this."
Turner said Maryland legislators have heard such arguments before. He noted that casino advocates argued for years that the state was falling behind neighboring states before Maryland finally acted to legalize them in 2008.
"We got in late," he said, "but I think things are doing just fine."
As lucrative as such legislation is for lobbyists, many lawmakers are in no hurry to return to the issue of what casinos can and can't do. When such questions come up in Annapolis, they tend to heighten tensions and push other issues aside.
Debate over whether to add a sixth casino and allow table games in 2012 helped derail the budget plans of Gov. Martin O'Malley. It took two special sessions to sort out taxes, spending and gambling.
Turner said he has no objection to sports betting at casinos or the revenue it would bring in.
"I think it's an inevitable venture for the future," he said.
But he said Maryland should wait to see what Congress does before enacting its own legislation. And he noted the Congress has many other issues to grapple with.
"I'm sure sports betting isn't at the top of their list," Turner said.