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Penn National's 'free' speech

Penn National Gaming is in the entertainment industry, so perhaps the company is going for laughs of late. Its latest claim — that a state commission's concerns over Penn National's efforts to quash slots machines at Arundel Mills Mall is a violation of their First Amendment rights — can't be serious.

Company officials must believe they can play Maryland taxpayers for chumps. On the one hand, Penn National holds a profitable license to operate a 1,500-machine slots parlor in Cecil County. On the other, it's helping fight the state's most lucrative slots location, a project that could go a long way toward closing billions of dollars in projected state budget deficits.

Why take the fight to Arundel Mills? Here's a guess: Penn National also operates one of the country's largest and most profitable slots facilities, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia, the Arundel Mills project's dominant out-of-state competitor. Any rejection or even further delay at the mall site — as the referendum facing Anne Arundel County voters in November's ballot can obviously provide — is a big win for Penn National any way you look at it.

Under the circumstances, the Maryland State Lottery Commission was not only within its rights to question Penn National's involvement with Arundel Mills as a possible breach of its contractual obligations to the state, it had a fiduciary responsibility to do so. This isn't a free speech issue, it's a licensing one. Should one slots licensee be allowed to interfere with another? As Chairman J. Kirby Fowler noted, "it smells bad."

Naturally, Penn National's response is to take more of the state budget hostage by suggesting the Perryville location may not be opened on Sept. 30 as planned. That delay probably means a lot more to Maryland's budget than it does to Penn National's bottom line; while there's money to be made by slot machines in Cecil County, there's far more at stake with the company's 5,000 slot machines in West Virginia.

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