Starting Slow With Slots Is Proper Course

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After all the bids were submitted last week, it’s appropriate to refer the current turn of events regarding slots in Maryland as a debacle.

The word “disappointment” was often used over the last two weeks to describe the fact there were only six bids offered for the five selected sites for slots parlors in Maryland. More important is the realization that the state will be short approximately $40 million in license fees and millions more in potential revenue due to the fact the proposals currently on the table cumulatively fall short of the 15,000 machines authorized by the state legislature last year. The 6,550 slot terminals will generate far less than the state had anticipated, but we are not surprised by this turn of events.

Slots were never going to be a panacea for the state’s budget crisis, though there were many who were banking on the license fees and additional tax revenues to balance future budgets. Nor were the one-arm bandits ever going to save the horse-racing industry, as some of the uninformed expected. These were foolish expectations belied by inexperienced optimism.

As a result of the low bids, State Sen. President Mike Miller has suggested the bidding process be reconfigured with adjustments made to the state’s take. That’s premature and unfair, and most legislators feel the same way. It’s our hope no legislation is ever introduced this year to take such a course because that would stink of impropriety and malfeasance.

All of the panic over the low number of slots proposals can be attributed to the fact expectations were severely elevated. Despite the fiscal experts warning repeatedly the expanded gambling would not make up the difference between expenditures and receipts, some apparently believed it would be a huge help. That’s not turning out to be the case and those who did not prepare for this possibility are now pushing the panic button, resorting to discussions of a “redo” of the entire process.

On the local front, Ocean Downs, as expected, was the sole bidder in Worcester County. None of the other rumored sites came forward, and the racetrack plans to add 800 slots to its site, rather than the approved 2,500. Owner Bill Rickman submitted the $4.8 million in license fees as called for in the legislation with his proposal. A short-term plan calls for possibly expanding to 1,500 but no timetable was put forward on that option.

A small, realistic approach to gambling in this economy seems wise. Lots of questions are left to be answered including: what kind of improvements will have to be made at Ocean Downs? Will Route 589 see a light as a result of this plan? Will the roadway still need to be dualized? What happens next? There are still some unknowns, but we think this is a smart way to proceed with slots in Worcester.

As Delegate Jim Mathias said last week, this will give the county and all the affected parties “the opportunity to measure the impacts to the community on a smaller scale and make adjustments as this thing evolves.” It will be interesting to see how the process evolves, but we were relieved when we saw the amount coming to Worcester and the state and think the pace at which its starting is logical and beneficial to all involved.

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