Slots Referendum Approved With Slew Of Tweaks

BERLIN – The reality of slots at Ocean Downs is now closer than it has ever been with the state legislature’s approval and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s official signing into law a bill that will allow the voters of Maryland to decide the issue once and for all.

In a whirlwind finish to the contentious three-week special session of the Maryland General Assembly last weekend, the House of Delegates last Friday narrowly approved a bill authorizing a statewide referendum on slots in the November 2008 general election by a vote of 86-51, or one more than the minimum needed to keep the legislation alive. The House vote went practically straight along party lines with 81 Democrats voting for the bill and five Republicans breaking ranks and supporting the legislation.

About 19 hours later, the bill authorizing a referendum on slots next November breezed through the Senate by a 31-13 vote, which also fell closely along party lines. The Senate approval essentially removed the last obstacle for O’Malley’s plan to let the voters of Maryland decide whether or not they want the gaming machines.

In the November 2008 referendum, a simple majority of the state’s electorate, one way or the other, will signal the fate of the proposed 15,000 slot machines in Maryland including as many as 3,250 at Ocean Downs in Worcester County. An effort near the finish line to consider the vote counts in the jurisdictions where slots venues are proposed failed, meaning the state’s electorate will decide.

Ocean City elected officials and the resort’s business leadership has for years opposed slots at Ocean Downs and the County Commissioners followed suit two weeks ago with a brief letter of opposition, but the results of the statewide referendum next November could negate that. Instead, Ocean City and Worcester will likely be forced to bow to the will of the state’s electorate.

However, even after O’Malley had signed the approved slots bill on Tuesday, opponents were sifting through the language in the legislation to see if there was any way for local jurisdictions to block their ultimate approval.

One possible loophole that came to light is a rather innocuous line of small type in the bill that could be interpreted as a means to let jurisdictions where slots venues are proposed to prevent their implementation through local zoning laws.

“A video lottery facility shall comply with all applicable planning and zoning laws of the local jurisdiction,” the bill reads.

However, the County Commissioners, who hold sway over zoning laws throughout the county at-large including Ocean Downs have already determined they would not likely fight slots at the Berlin racetrack based on anything in the existing county code.

According to the commissioners’ Public Information Officer Kim Moses, slots machines at Ocean Downs would likely fit into the list of activities allowed at the racetrack under the current code.

“A racetrack is a conforming special exception in an agricultural district,” she said. “We expect that slots would be defined as an integral part of a racetrack and, therefore, should be allowed. We’re not aware of any zoning being an issue. As far as re-zoning, the county generally does not rezone, unless at the request of the landowner.”

Of course, any formal opposition by the county would likely dissolve if a majority of the voters in Worcester decide they want slots in the referendum next November. From the beginning, a vocal contingent of Ocean City elected officials and business community members have opposed slots in the county and anywhere in Maryland for that matter, but no good barometer of the opinion of the voters across the county is on the record. Some informal polls, including one commissioned by Ocean Downs owner William Rickman Jr., suggest a silent majority of Worcester’s voters support slots at Ocean Downs.

Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) took an amendment to the floor of the House late last week to get Worcester County excluded from the slots plan, but was not able to gain the approval of his colleagues. In the end, Mathias voted against the legislation authorizing the referendum, but voted for the companion bill that spells out how the slots plan will be implemented. He said this week once the referendum became inevitable, he went into a mode to ensure there were certain protections for the local communities where the venues are proposed including Worcester.

Mathias said his opposition to the statewide referendum was based in part on the absence of an opt-out provision for the local jurisdictions.

“That was a very grave concern for me,” he said. “Five jurisdictions in the state are proposed as slots destinations, but the voters in 23 counties plus Baltimore City will get to decide where they go.”

Mathias was quick to point out his opposition to the slots referendum should not be taken as a vote against the people of Maryland deciding the issue.

“There is a process and that process is preserved in this,” he said. “I fully encourage everyone to get out and vote on this important issue whether they are for slots, against slots or still on the fence. If they are on the fence, they’ll certainly have plenty to watch and read about the issue over the next 12 months.”

Beyond the referendum issue, Mathias said he was satisfied the local communities including Worcester would be protected from perceived negative impacts of slots and possibly gain something from them.

For example, Delegate Page Elmore (R-37A) inserted an amendment preventing whoever ends up with a slot machine license at the Worcester County site from building a hotel or motel, convention center, amusement rides, arcades or miniature golf courses within 10 miles of the location. Elmore said he inserted to amendment to help placate the nearby resort community worried about competition from the new entertainment source. However, the amendment’s future is in question until the state’s Attorney General’s office can make a ruling on its legality.

Another important concession in the slots bill as written and approved will allow local liquor license boards to regulate specials and giveaways at the proposed slots venues. The issue is important especially here in Worcester where the resort area business community has opposed slots because of concerns about competition with the food and beverage aspects of the slots venues.

“That was extremely important because our local liquor license board will get to regulate what they can do in terms of giveaways and comps,” said Mathias. “We were able to bring that home for our district, which should help alleviate some of the concerns.”

Another major concern is the potential impact of a slots venue at Ocean Downs on traffic in the surrounding area, but Mathias said there is language in the bill that will require the state to make necessary infrastructure improvements before in the areas surrounding them. That could mean an expedited expansion of Route 589 and even jumpstart the completion of Route 113. At the moment, however, the language in the bill says the state “may” make improvements and not “shall” make improvements.