Maryland’s governor is a giant step closer to returning to good health. He’s been battling a long-running illness — “casino-itis”— caused by dealing with gambling matters for too many years.
Martin O’Malley says he’s “sick of the issue” and wants to put it behind him. If voters in November agree to the General Assembly’s just-approved gambling expansion law, the governor can stop whining about his “mal de casinos.”
Still, gambling issues won’t disappear.
David Cordish, the hard-driving licensee of the Arundel Mills casino, will continue his quest to kill the newly sanctioned Prince George’s site by getting voters in that county to reject the referendum. That way he can dispose of a potential competitor while adding table games and also keeping a bit more of the proceeds.
Penn National, which operates the Perryville slots casino in Cecil County, will fight the referendum, too, but for vastly different reasons. Its officers say O’Malley has stacked the deck in Prince George’s for a casino at National Harbor rather than at Penn National’s Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.
After the election, the governor and legislature will be presented with other proposals to tweak and twist the new gambling law during the 2013 legislative session — and beyond. It’s a lobbyist’s delight.
Even though O’Malley still must deal with Maryland’s burgeoning casino industry for the rest of his term, he has handled the hard part: Putting Maryland on an equal footing with neighboring states and providing a gaming site for each region of Maryland.
Of course, it took him two tries and six years to get it right. In 2007, House Speaker Mike Busch saddled O’Malley with a flawed slots-only bill that contained restrictive provisions. It threatened the viability of these facilities. No wonder few companies bid for the licenses.
This week’s bill fixes most of those defects, giving Maryland a casino law that will generate an enormous amount of cash to help balance the state’s budget.
The 2007 law placed an excessive tax on casinos — the highest in the country at 67 percent. No wonder the slots facility at Ocean Downs lost $2.5 million in its first year and gambling activity at Perryville never came close to meeting expectations.
But when the Arundel Mills slots building opened this spring, the partially completed facility proved such a revenue gusher (more than $1 million dollars per day) that lawmakers and the governor couldn’t ignore the potential.
Officials began to understand that placing fewer restrictions on gambling facilities — and adding a Prince George’s site — would generate even more revenue for the state and ease pressure on them to raise taxes.
They also started to recognize that a large number of their constituents enjoyed this leisure-time activity.
The final version approved this week levels the playing field with nearby states that already have full-service casinos.
But gaining passage early Wednesday morning wasn’t easy.
It took last-minute horse trading — allowing a handful of lottery-like slot machines in veterans halls (except on the Eastern Shore and in Montgomery County); shifting the state’s enforcement powers over video poker machines in Baltimore city and Baltimore County taverns (ostensibly labeled “amusement” devices) to the more accommodating local state’s attorneys, and blocking casino ATMs from honoring state-issued welfare cards.
Busch got his 71 votes the hard way. Had he pushed through a similar Senate-passed casino expansion bill in April, he could have done so without concessions. Had he told delegates on the governor’s casino work group to accept compromise language, a quick special session could have been held in June with enough Democrats present to ensure easy passage.
Instead, the speaker was forced to wheel and deal with Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats.
Pending the November results, Maryland now will plunge into full-scale casino gambling that has proved popular in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Atlantic City, N.J.
It will be a slow transformation, though.
This fall, the Arundel Mills casino installs its full complement of 4,750 slot machines. Table games, with human dealers, start appearing there, at Perryville and at Ocean Downs sometime in 2013. A small casino opens next year at the Rocky Gap Lodge in Western Maryland, too.
In 2014, Caesar’s Entertainment opens its Harrah’s branded casino in Baltimore (south of the Ravens football stadium) with 3,750 slot machines, live table games and entertainment. It could rival Cordish’s Maryland Live! for popularity.
In mid-2016, barring legal and political roadblocks, an elegant Las Vegas style casino will open in Prince George’s County close enough to Northern Virginia to yield a gold mine for the operators, the county and the state.
Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!
It’s a shame it took O’Malley and Busch so long to figure it out. “This should have happened 10 years ago,” said Senate President Mike Miller, a longtime gambling advocate.
Think of how much revenue would have been raised for the state’s general fund. Maryland’s budget woes would have been greatly eased. Thousands of jobs would have been created.
Oh well, better late than never.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.