Open season for Md. casino interests

Gov. Martin O'Malleyexplained his headlong push for expanded gambling in Maryland as an attempt to end debate on the issue once and for all — at least for as long as he is governor. But the legislature may have sabotaged that hope through an amendment that gutted Mr. O'Malley's effort to ban campaign contributions from gambling interests. There can be no doubt about the gambling industry's influence in Annapolis after the legislature passed an expansion plan that is more lucrative for the casinos than the state by a ratio of 13-1. With the loophole-ridden contribution restrictions in the bill Mr. O'Malley signed this week, there is little chance that influence is going to diminish.

What Mr. O'Malley proposed was not perfect, but it made a strong statement in favor of stemming the political influence of an industry that is made or broken by government regulation. It would have prohibited contributions from anyone who has or is applying for a gambling license; a broadly defined set of "key employees" of licensees or applicants; and any subsidiaries, holding companies or intermediary companies of licensees or applicants. The ban applied to candidates for non-federal office in Maryland and to contributions to political parties.

Although it may seem out of step with recent Supreme Court decisions equating campaign contributions with political speech, similar restrictions have been upheld in some states (though struck down in others). The reason it is likely legal is that the gambling industry is one that would not exist at all in this state if the government did not allow it and regulate it.

Even Mr. O'Malley's proposal would not have completely cut off the flow of cash from gambling interests to the politicians. It did not close a loophole whereby developers like Maryland Live owner the Cordish Cos.or Ocean Downs owner William Rickman use the many limited liability companies created in their line of business to get around the state's contribution limits. Nor would it necessarily have cut off the ability of casino owners to attempt to curry favor with Mr. O'Malley. Although he says there is no connection between his fund-raising activities and his policy choices, the campaign fund for the Democratic Governors Association, of which he is chairman, has seen a spike in contributions from Caesars, which was recently awarded the license for a Baltimore casino. The governor's proposal wouldn't have affected possible contributions to his newly-formed federal political action committee either.

Nonetheless, Mr. O'Malley's bill at least showed an understanding of the potentially corrupting nature of contributions from gambling interests. The legislature, by contrast, left in place a sham restriction. It only bans contributions from those who own at least a 5 percent stake in a casino. That leaves out most of those involved in the group that's building the Baltimore casino, and it allows the possibility of contributions from key employees, subsidiaries and holding companies. That is to say, the vast majority of potential contributions from gambling interests would be unaffected.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, raised an excellent point in explaining his decision to weaken the restriction. He told The Sun's Annie Linskey and Michael Dresser: "In a way, it looks bad that you exclude the gambling people. Why not other people who do business with the state?"

Why not, indeed? Mr. Kasemeyer's argument builds a case for much broader campaign contribution limits, not for throwing them out in this instance. The only truly reliable way to diminish the influence of special interest money in politics would be to enact public campaign financing — an idea that has passed the House of Delegates but has died repeatedly in the Senate. But restricting contributions from those who stand to profit from government decisions, which look to all the world like legalized bribery, would be a step in the right direction. And given the state's history of political corruption associated with the gambling before slot machines were outlawed here in the 1960s, the casino industry would be a good place to start.

The experience of other states is that once gambling is legalized, the issue never goes away. Year after year, gambling interests come back seeking concessions. Mere minutes after the General Assembly voted to approve the gambling bill in this week's special session, Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millerwas musing about the possibility of one day allowing two casinos inPrince George's Countyinstead of just one. Had Mr. O'Malley's proposed restrictions been allowed to stand, the people would have had a fighting chance of standing up to the relentless pressure from the gambling industry. Now, it's open season.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad