Take a step back on gambling

What's the rush? For years, gambling was so important to legislators from Maryland's majority party that it was better to spite a Republican governor than to allow it.

Now delegates and senators will likely be asked to modify, in a few days of a special session next month, what took years of political infighting, bad policy and a constitutional amendment to give us: the crony capitalist disaster that is Maryland gaming law. Shouldn't amending a policy that has left two of the five locations allotted for slots undeveloped for four years at least require the 90 days of the regular session to debate?

Fairness to current slots license holders is not the reason. This is Maryland, remember. Businesses that operate here should know better than to expect a consistent rule of law. Remember the 2006 "Wal-MartLaw"? It would have forced one company to spend a certain amount on health insurance for its employees, but it was struck down in federal court. And what about the late-night 2007 decision to tax technology companies, reversed only by an unprecedented response by those targeted, with the burden shifted to millionaires in 2008?

No, the real reason is money. Why should legislators open the door to expanded gambling inPrince George's County— specifically, one location where MGM Resorts International says it would like to invest about $600 million if legislators and taxpayers amend state law to its liking — when it may not be the best option for residents and state and local tax coffers? (Changing state law to allow table games at the state's five approved slots locations and lowering the tax rate on gambling revenue are also likely topics for a special session.)

Lots of questions need to be answered about gambling, starting with: Why Prince George's County? Why not Harford County, for example? Harford County Executive David Craig said a riverboat casino could help pay for teacher pensions and other education costs for his jurisdiction. Why is it fair to change the rules only for one county? If Prince George's can reap a projected $69 million per year from opening a resort casino, shouldn't every county be given the chance to compete for gamblers?

Second, why does the development have to be located at National Harbor?

One study shows National Harbor would be the best place to locate a high-end resort. Is it just a coincidence that Prince George's County commissioned the study from Pennsylvania-based Business Research & Economic Advisors (BREA), which lists Gaylord Entertainment as a key client on its website? Gaylord developed National Harbor with The Peterson Cos. and owns the largest hotel in the development. The company stands to reap millions from the proposed project MGM plans to build with the Peterson Cos.

BREA President Andrew Moody said his firm did a study for Gaylord on the potential of National Harbor around 2004. He said the report was private and would not release it. His firm also did work for Penn National Gaming, owner of Rosecroft Raceway, a competing destination for a casino in Prince George's. But he said the research was done years ago for an out-of-state location.

Couldn't County Executive Rushern Baker have chosen a different research group for a taxpayer-funded study to at least avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest? With all the pay-to-play scandals in Prince George's County in recent years, taxpayers deserve to know this deal will not be rife with corruption like so many projects in the county under Mr. Baker's predecessor, Jack Johnson, who was convicted of federal bribery charges.

Wanting a new revenue source for the county is understandable. But allowing Mr. Baker and Prince George's to set the terms of the debate on a statewide subject would be unfair and unprincipled given the circumstances, regardless of what the state work group on expanding gambling recommends. Taxpayers deserve a more thorough discussion of gambling that can only take place during a full legislative session. Pushing it to a special session only makes it seem like there is something to hide.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com.

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