We tossed the dice with slots

The Baltimore Sun

How many different ways can Maryland's slots proposal be messed up?

Perhaps this was all predictable from the start. Has there ever been a state that has acted so ambivalently over slots? That has had such a long-running, love-hate, passive-aggressive relationship with the darn things? That has flirted with them for years and years but, now that they're finally on our doorstep, can't quite bring itself to seal the deal with a satisfying, yes I said yes I will Yes ending?

More like, maybe I said maybe I will Maybe, as it's turned out, even though voters supposedly settled the matter back in November when they amended the Constitution to let 15,000 of the machines into the state.

Instead, if I might summarize what's happened since then, here's what's happened since then:

Six groups placed bids, but for only 6,550 slot machines.

Two of the six bidders couldn't, or wouldn't, follow the rules, so they were tossed out of the game, meaning we're now down to 5,800 proposed machines.

One of the five locations that was authorized to get slots is left out in the cold, with no current bid to operate a parlor, although perhaps bidding will be reopened for that.

One of the failed bidders is already in court crying no fair.

And the legislator who has fought hardest over the years for slots wants to scrap all this and start the bidding process all over again.

Great, a do-over. Somehow, it's always Groundhog Day in Maryland when it comes to slots.

No matter how you feel about slots, November's referendum at least promised an end to what had become endless dithering. After consuming God knows how many hours of political debate - on any number of deathbeds, you can be sure there will be wishes to have even a fraction of that time back - when slots finally went to the voters in the last election, it seemed that whatever the outcome, at least it would put a lid on this tiresome issue. Voters approved the constitutional amendment by a nearly 3-2 margin, and we were off to the races.

Well, not quite. And, in fact, as it stands now, the bid from Magna Entertainment Corp. that would have placed slots at its Laurel Park racetrack is one of the proposals that has been tossed out - and perhaps with it, as the threat goes, the very future of Maryland horse racing that slots were supposed to save in the first place.

I've lost track of all that slots are supposed to do for Maryland - from keeping the sainted Preakness from high-tailing it out of Baltimore to boosting funding for schools to easing property taxes in the city to, oh yes, balancing the state budget.

Maybe slots were never going to be all that. It always seemed to me that the state was pinning a lot of its hopes on something that was literally a gamble.

But in recent months, it became even more obvious that the projected slots revenues, if they were ever realistic, are suddenly quite the fantasy. For one thing, the recession happened - and with it the lackluster response to the opening of bids to operate slot parlors here and the very real questions of how many machines would ultimately be approved and how many gamblers would actually be drawn to play them.

At Thursday's meeting of the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission in Annapolis, state officials acknowledged that Maryland won't go into fiscal 2010 with the full $90 million in licensing fees that it expected to receive from slots bidders. Two groups submitted bids without the required fees and were disqualified from further consideration. And it only gets worse from there - fewer slots means less revenue, so forget that $600 million a year that the 15,000 machines were supposed to add to state coffers once they were up and running.

So what now? The Laurel Park group has filed for an injunction against their bid being disqualified. Supporters of slots at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland - the group that had bid on that site similarly did not submit licensing fees and was tossed out - said they hoped another bid would emerge. Since there's no currently viable bid for Rocky Gap, slots commission chairman Donald Fry said it could be opened for rebidding.

As it stands, the commission has four remaining bids to review - less than the state had hoped for, but, hey, that's what tends to happen when you roll the dice and gamble. While legitimate questions have risen over how Maryland structured the whole slots proposal - the state's 67 percent take of what operators collect from the machines is one of the highest in the nation, and surely dissuaded some companies from jumping in - it's hard to imagine how you could change the rules now that the game is already under way and four bidders have been playing by them.

Still, it's a whole 'nother game than anyone had anticipated even as recently as November.

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