OCEAN CITY – With the arrival of state officials and representatives of every county in the state for the Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo) annual convention, Ocean City became the battlefield for the moment in the pending war over slots in Maryland and the local business community made it clear how it feels about the issue to the opponents in the fray.
From one end of the resort to the other, business marquees boldly boasted the message “No Slots in Maryland. Period,” or some version of it, in an attempt to let state lawmakers know how they feel about the issue in general and how they feel about the potential for the gaming devices in Ocean City and anywhere in Worcester County specifically. The campaign comes on the heels of an effort announced last week by the resort’s tourism commission to present a unified message about slots opposition.
In remains to be seen if general public in the area feels the same way about slots, and only a referendum or straw poll, would truly provide a barometer for local opinion on the issue, but judging by the signs dotting the Coastal Highway, the local business community has made good on its promise to present a unified opposition to the gaming machines.
The MaCo convention in Ocean City got underway on Wednesday, the day after Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Thomas E. Perez presented the results of his months-long study of the slots issue to Governor Martin O’Malley. The report released by the governor’s office advocates slots as a means to help resolve the state’s anticipated $1.5 billion budget gap, while saving its failing horse racing industry at the same time.
As part of his research, Perez visited slot venues in neighboring Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and literally counted Maryland license plates in the parking lots. While the 19-page document clearly defines every aspect of the issue, its message can be summed up in a single paragraph.
“It is important to acknowledge that, in a very real sense, the slots horse is already out of the barn in Maryland,” the report reads. “Tens of thousands of Marylanders are voting with their feet and traveling to West Virginia and Delaware to play slots. By not having slots, Maryland has already left hundreds of millions of dollars in potential general fund revenue on the table, and the tables are located in West Virginia and Delaware. The demand for slot machines clearly exists in Maryland. The $150 million in taxes paid by Maryland slot players to West Virginia and Delaware in 2006 represents 10 percent of Maryland’s structural deficit.”
While much of the report focuses on the potential importance of slots as a revenue source to help reconcile the $1.5 billion structural deficit, there is considerable relevance given to slots as a means to save Maryland’s racing industry. Much of the data supporting slots at racetracks in Maryland is related to Ocean Downs right here in Worcester County, because of its proximity to tracks in Delaware that offer slots.
For example, the report states the average nightly purse at Ocean Downs is $22,000, while the average nightly purse at Harrington Raceway in Delaware, which was comparable to Ocean Downs before slots, is now $200,000. Similarly, the average daily purses for harness races at Dover Downs climbed from 55th in the nation in 1996 to 8th in 2005, while Ocean Downs saw its average purses nudge up from 65th to 57th in the same time period.
“The fallout from this explosion in Delaware’s purse structure is not hard to picture,” the Perez report reads. “Given a choice between a $2,353 purse at Ocean Downs and a $13,393 purse in Dover, most rational owners and drivers will choose the latter.”
While the Perez report paints a rosy picture of slots as a means to reconcile the budget deficit and save the horseracing industry, not all state higher-ups agree with its findings. Shortly after the Perez report was released, State Comptroller Peter Franchot issued a scathing statement about its contents he apparently drafted on his way to the MaCo conference in Ocean City.
“I’m on my way to Ocean City for MaCo and am scheduled to talk to business owners about issues of concern,” he said. “I know that top on their list will be slots and it should be. As the state’s chief fiscal officer, I feel duty bound to speak out when Maryland’s future financial picture is threatened.”
For years, local leadership has opposed slots because of its potential competition with traditional tourism-based businesses. There has also been a moral objection from some sectors in the community worried about the gaming machine’s potential impact on people in the community at risk of addiction. Franchot’s statement on Wednesday echoes some of those sentiments.
“Missing from this slots report is any substantive look at the negative impacts in terms of crime and violence, drug addiction- and the impact on small businesses, neighborhoods and entire communities,” the statement reads. “The report, however, is revealing in one respect: it makes clear that slot machine gambling is not the panacea for our budget woes.”