Md. slots panel favors table games

Members of Maryland's slots panel, worried that neighboring states are enhancing their casinos, recommended Friday that lawmakers allow table games like blackjack and poker at the five slots locations voters have approved.

"It is apparent we are well behind the curve," Commissioner D. Bruce Poole said at a slots commission meeting Friday. "We are running catch-up with other states."

The commission's decision came hours after a key vote by Delaware lawmakers to allow dice and card games at their gaming facilities. West Virginia will offer table games as early as this summer, and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell is supporting table games there.

"The world is changing around us," commission Chairman Donald C. Fry said.

The commission's recommendations do not have the force of law. Fry characterized the panel's action as an effort to tell lawmakers, "Hey, keep an eye on this."

Allowing table games in Maryland would require legislation plus statewide approval of a constitutional amendment, and it is unclear if top lawmakers want to reopen the topic.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said last week that he is "not looking to go backward" this legislative session to discuss gambling. House Speaker Michael E. Busch will "look at" the recommendations, said a spokeswoman, Alexandra Hughes.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has already floated reopening the gambling question, throwing support behind a proposal to add a new casino in Prince George's County.

The state's fledgling gambling program has had a slow launch, with the five approved sites attracting lackluster interest from bidders and only two of the five expected to open this year. Meanwhile, the state faces a $2 billion revenue shortfall and is depending on some gambling revenues to help close the gap this year.

The commissioners heard testimony from Michael G. French, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, who said the addition of table games would have an "incremental" effect on the revenues earned by the casinos, but would put more people to work.

"The greatest impact would be jobs," French said.

Poole, who was by far the most outspoken supporter of table games, said he was attracted by the idea of increasing employment and believes games with live dealers would attract a more upscale crowd to casinos. "I don't mind milking the rich," he said.

Fry said two sites, at Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore and in Cecil County, likely will open this fall. The Anne Arundel County Council last month approved the necessary zoning for a 4,750-machine casino.

But it could be months before the commission rebids the two outstanding locations: Baltimore and Rocky Gap.

The group that bid in Baltimore is appealing the commission's earlier decision to reject its bid, which Fry said would hold up rebidding for months. The commission is recommending changes to sweeten the terms for a casino at Rocky Gap State Park, the only location approved for gambling that did not attract a qualified bidder last year. There, the commission wants to allow bidders to purchase an existing state-owned lodge and count that price against the $75 million capital investment requirement. The lodge cost the state about $25 million.

The commission also said it wants the General Assembly to allow a single business to control multiple gambling licenses.

Fry opened the meeting by announcing the resignation of Robert Neall, who, he said, stepped down because his wife, Marta D. Harting, had a conflict of interest.

Harting is a lobbyist who works for Venable LLP. In December, the Simon Property Group, which owns Arundel Mills, hired the law firm to advise it on zoning issues before the Anne Arundel County Council, according to Les Morris, a spokesman for the Simon Group.

Neall voted in December to award the Cordish Cos. a gaming license to build a slots parlor in that shopping mall. Neall did not return calls Friday.

Miller said he would appoint David L. Murray, the president and CEO of Medical Mutual, to fill the commission vacancy.