Slots Called ‘Even Bet’ With Two Months To Go

OCEAN CITY – Despite
strong rhetoric from an organized and vocal anti-slots contingent in the local
area and across Maryland, the November referendum on the gaming machines
appears to be an “even bet” with just under two months remaining before the
election, resort business leaders heard this week.

The resort’s Economic
Development Committee (EDC) this week hosted its bi-annual legislative summit,
inviting its representatives in Annapolis
including Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus and Delegates Norm Conway and Page Elmore,
along with Ocean City Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Dennis Rasmussen to Ocean City
for a frank discussion of important upcoming issues. Conspicuously absent was
Delegate Jim Mathias, who is in Louisiana
to assist with disaster relief efforts there in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Inevitably, the
discussion at the meeting on Wednesday turned to the November referendum on
slots, and the generally anti-slots local business community was not likely
pleased when the race was handicapped. For years, certain segments of the Ocean
City business community including the EDC and the chamber, along with the
town’s elected officials, have made it known in no uncertain terms they are
opposed to slots.

What is uncertain,
however, is just how the general population in the resort, or Worcester County,
or even across the state, feel about legalizing the gaming devices through a
statewide referendum in November. Conway told
EDC members on Wednesday his interactions with the citizens on the Lower Shore
point to an opinion in sharp contrast to the vocal and organized public one.

“All of the emails,
phone calls and personal contacts I’ve had in this district seem to indicate a
pro-stance on slots,” he said. “Now, I’m not going to be one of those sitting
there playing them, but I’m not sure there is as much opposition to them out
there as you might think.”

Rasmussen agreed there
appears to be a silent majority across Maryland
in favor of the gaming machines, which could offset the strong anti-slots
position put forth from certain circles. With two months to go, the referendum
could go either way and it will likely come down to which faction is most
successful in getting its message out.

“As I go around the
state, I’d say it’s an even bet,” he said. “There are strong anti groups, but
clearly there are no strong proponents. That could change. The racing interests
are not yet fully engaged.”

Voters across Maryland will likely settle the slots issue once and for
all in November when they head to the polls to cast their ballots on a
referendum question calling for an amendment to the state’s constitution to

allow 15,000 of the gaming devices at five locations including Ocean Downs in Worcester County. The wording in the ballot

question has been formally challenged because of the notion it unfairly paints
a rosy picture of the benefits of slots without pointing out its potential
downfalls, according to Stoltzfus.

“This issue is obviously
very important to Ocean
City,” he said. “The
first thing to start with is the ballot language and it’s being challenged.
It’s deliberately misleading and it’s wrong.”

Stoltzfus told EDC
members on Wednesday the slots-for-schools premise is misleading because much
of the revenue generated from the gaming machines will not go where it is
supposed to go despite the language in the bill.

“The ballot language
extols the virtues of the revenues going to education, but the reality is most
of it is going into the general fund. The revenue will be swallowed up in the
general fund and it could go to anything. The same thing happened to a large
extent with the lottery.”

Stoltzfus said Worcester County has the power, if not the will,
to decide not to have slots, whether the referendum passes or not. He said in
letters he has received from the commissioners, five have said they are opposed
and two have said they are in favor.

“The County Commissioners
will decide,” he said. “The way they can change it is to change the zoning at
Ocean Downs. That interaction should be there. They may get beat up over it,
but the reality is they have the power to stop it.”

One of the local
arguments against slots has always been the notion casino gambling less than 10
miles away from the resort could draw away discretionary spending from Ocean
City tourist attractions. Stoltzfus pointed out Ocean Downs will likely be
transformed from a folksy, country racetrack to something far different if
slots are approved there.

“Mr. Rickman will be
required to spend $125 million there if slots are approved for Ocean City,”
he said. “It’s going to look good and it’s going to look glitzy. It’s
especially not good for Worcester County and I know it’s not good for Ocean City.
It will cannibalize small business the same way it did in Atlantic City.”

As chairman of the House
Appropriations Committee, Conway
has been on the front lines of the debate about slots as a panacea for the
state’s growing budget problems. He took the opportunity before resort business
leaders on Wednesday to clear the air about his position.

“Never have I said the
referendum on slots could be the answer to the state’s budget problem,” he

However, Elmore, a
Republican, said the state’s budget woes are intrinsically tied to the outcome
of the November referendum. “If the slots bill fails in November, we’ll be in a
big budget hole,” he said.

As the Ocean City
Chamber’s lobbyist, Rasmussen has publicly opposed slots on behalf of his
client, but he warned that local governments could stand to lose the most if the
General Assembly is forced to make deep budget cuts this winter.

“The players that have
the most interest are local governments,” he said. “If slots don’t pass,
legislators are looking at major reductions and those will trickle down to
local government.”

However, he also said
budget cuts are likely coming anyway and are likely unavoidable even if the
state’s voters approve slots in November.

“There are going to be
budget cuts next session whether slots pass or not,” he said. “It would be two
years at least until slots revenue starts coming in.”