NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: Bill Easing Casino Restrictions Worries OC

OCEAN CITY – The resort’s future is being threatened as a result of a bill proposing to drop restrictions from casinos throughout the state, including at Ocean Downs in Berlin, according to Ocean City officials.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">

At the conclusion of Monday evening’s legislative session, Mayor Rick Meehan brought up Senate Bill (SB) 892, Gaming-Video Lottery Terminals and Table Games, that had been approved by the State Senate a couple of weeks ago and was heading to the House this week as House Bill (HB) 1265.

SB 892 allows for an expansion of gambling at approved slots locations in the state to include table games such as poker, blackjack, craps and roulette.

It will also allow for a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George’s County, and alter some of the provisions in the legislation approved by state voters in a 2008 referendum, including changes in the revenue distribution structure and amenities offered at Ocean Downs, for example.

The bill was approved last week by the Senate in a 35-11 vote, which would put the issue back in front of the state’s voters through a referendum process.

At the time Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) recused himself from the vote after an inquiry last week called into question a potential conflict of interest because of his employment with the local company, Royal Plus, which did extensive work at the Berlin facility.

Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B), who represents Worcester and the Lower Shore, said he was not surprised the bill passed the Senate and was prepared to support it when it came before the House.

“Once that horse left the barn, it became evident this would be the next step,” he said last week. “I really don’t have any concerns about it. I’m sure at this point there won’t be a lot of opposition to it. It’s going to happen.”

This week, Meehan and City Council members said they were not surprised to see the bill pass either.

We knew this was coming and I can tell you that we knew it was coming the day that they passed the bill four years ago,” Meehan said.

Meehan outlined the approved changes that are causing great concern for Ocean City. First, it will eliminate the current provision that prohibits a video lottery operator from offering free food and alcoholic beverages.

Next, it removes certain restrictions that were originally put in place specifically for Ocean Downs, such as prohibiting construction or operation of a conference or convention center, amusement park or other specified entertainment facility within 10 miles of the casino. It also prohibited offering patrons live music or other forms of entertainment apart from a single piano player or fireworks displays.

“These changes have raised some concerns and I think rightfully so … they have to be approved by referendum and trust me there isn’t anybody that is voting across the state that is going to make their decisions based on what changes will be made at the racetrack in Worcester County,” Meehan said. “That is just not going to be part of their thought process, but it is very important to us …. I don’t know if we have the power to change anything, the Senate bill already passed.”

By Monday, Meehan had met with Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel, who has prepared a letter to be sent to Annapolis opposing the legislation. The mayor had also made many calls to the area’s representatives to express concerns but had not heard back.

As the bill approached the House on Tuesday afternoon, Meehan asked for direction from the council.

“These are the things that we thought was exactly going to happen,” Council President Jim Hall said. “That they would get the casino built and then the restrictions and limitations would start dropping down.”

Jim Hall added that despite Ocean City’s and Worcester County’s attempts to be a good partner the changes were added to the bill.

“They should have been put in a separate bill because this is going to be a statewide vote and we are just little Worcester County and a little casino at the racetrack,” he said. “It is kind of a shame but for me I would hope you would go up [Annapolis] … and voice our opposition because this was exactly our thought of what was going to happen, and it is happening right before our eyes.”

Jim Hall forecasted that first the casino will serve free food and liquor, followed by the construction of hotels and motels and next will be a convention center.

“When you have free drinks and free food when you’re in Las Vegas it’s fair game because everybody has the same opportunities … but here they [Ocean Downs] will be the only one,” Meehan said. “It is unfair competition.”

At yesterday’s hearing, according to an Associated Press article, Delegate Frank Turner reportedly said “major changes” will be needed to be made to the Senate’s version of the bill for it to pass the House Ways and Means Committee. Turner said his main concern was the increased share of the money the operators stand to make under the Senate bill.