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Question 2: Maryland needs more information to embrace sports betting; vote 'no’ | COMMENTARY

There’s little doubt that legalized sports betting will eventually make its way to Maryland. Washington, D.C., and nearly two dozen states — including neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia — have approved it already, after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling made the move possible. And results from a February Goucher poll revealed that 45% of Marylanders supported such a gambling expansion and the revenue it might bring, even before the pandemic had devastated the country and the state’s earning potential.

But it can wait two more years for the next statewide election. Maryland voters should vote against the commercial gaming expansion referendum on their 2020 general election ballots and instead wait to see what the General Assembly puts together for a vote in 2022. Here’s why.

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Question 2 asks voters if they want to “authorize sports and events betting for the purpose of raising revenue for education,” which sounds OK on its face. We certainly need the money for schools. While the $4 billion-a-year landmark bill overhauling public education in the state — known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s future or, more commonly, “Kirwan” — was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan this year, an override is likely when the legislature convenes in January. And Maryland is already on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in related funding approved last year. Not to mention, many of our kids are going to need extra resources to make up for the myriad shortcomings of virtual learning amid the coronavirus threat.

Attitudes toward betting have relaxed in the state, as well, since the contentious debate a dozen years ago that led to the approval and eventual opening of the first casinos in Maryland with slot machines in 2010, followed by a hard-won referendum adding table games in 2012. According to the National Council on Problem Gaming (NCPG), 78% of state residents participated in some kind of gambling — legal or otherwise — during the past year, including sports betting (22%); and most participants reported a relatively healthy relationship with the addictive activity, with the vast majority saying they understood that gambling is for entertainment, not earnings, and that bills should be paid before indulging.

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So why not let consenting adults do what they will under the protection of state regulation, while giving Maryland children a share of the proceeds? Because we don’t know what that regulation would look like, nor have any guarantee the money will be used to educate kids.

Approving Question 2 simply authorizes the state to pass a law that would then work out the details on who would be eligible for a sports and events betting license, what form the gambling would take, and how it would be conducted and where. Will college sports be included? Will licenses be limited to casinos and race tracks? Who would control online betting and app access; would it only be allowed while inside certain brick-and-mortar locations or wherever the gambler is located — including their living room? We don’t know. And it matters. While the NCPG found relatively realistic attitudes toward gambling among Marylanders, it has also found that gambling problems rise as sports betting grows, especially when it’s done online.

And while it’s not unusual to pass a referendum first and fill in the particulars later, there’s no good reason to do that here. The potential revenue for the state — estimated to be around $18 million if taxed at 20% — is not nothing. But it’s not enough to make a significant dent in education or other Maryland costs and certainly not enough to justify proceeding without a clear plan or a requirement that the money go toward education, if that’s the way lawmakers want to play it.

There’s precedent for wanting it spelled out in legislation. The casino referendum of 2008 was also sold as a way to fund schools, ostensibly above and beyond what was already being done. But the casino funds simply replaced current education funds, which were then redirected to other areas, rather than adding to the education totals. It took another ballot question in 2018 — a decade later — to create a “lockbox” requiring that casino revenue supplement education.

A bill was under consideration during this year’s legislative session that laid out sports betting implementation. It would have been allowed at race tracks and casinos, and online or through smartphone apps affiliated with licensed locations. It passed, without discussion, 47-0 in the Senate, but was held up in the House by legitimate concerns over encouraging diversity in race and gender among licensees (see the botched handling of medical marijuana licenses). And so, lawmakers, again without discussion, stripped the bill of all details as an early pandemic-induced deadline loomed, and passed it, calling for a disparity study, which we approve of, and a quick referendum, which we don’t.

While we might look to the early bill for some idea of what the next one will look like, we have no assurances, and the devil, as we know, is always in the details. There should be more transparency in this process up front before charging ahead. Work out the details, then Marylanders can make an informed decision. Until then, we urge a vote against Question 2.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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