Slots Group Suggests Move To Table Games Needed Now

BERLIN – Long before the first slots handle is pulled in Maryland, a movement is already afoot to expand gambling in the state to include table games after the commission charged with approving the locations of the venues recommended last week at least exploring the opportunity.

The Maryland Video Lottery Location Commission met last Friday, and based on a recommendation by commission member D. Bruce Poole, has decided to forward a proposal to Governor Martin O’Malley and House and Senate leadership to at least consider full casino gambling. After years of contentious debate, voters across Maryland in November 2008 approved slots in large part to keep up with neighboring states reaping the revenue benefits of the gaming machines.

Over a year later, while Maryland continues to struggle with the approval and implementation of slots at several venues across the state, including Ocean Downs on Route 589, other states in the region are already moving toward full table gambling. Just last week, Delaware’s House of Delegates approved table games at its existing slots venues, while the Senate has yet to take up a vote, and Pennsylvania and West Virginia are expected to follow suit.

“We need to talk about how we’re going to get ahead of the curve,” Poole reportedly told his fellow commissioners during a meeting last Friday. “I think we’re at a point where we should consider the true addition of casinos in Maryland.”

Maryland Department of Legislative Services spokesperson Rachel Hise this week confirmed Poole’s appeal and the commission’s concurrence, adding a letter is being drafted to forward to the governor and state lawmakers.

“The commission met on Friday and one commissioner raised the issue of table games in surrounding states,” she said. “The commission decided to send a letter to the governor and the leadership in the Senate and House recommending the idea at least be considered.”

As of late this week, the letter had not been forwarded to the appropriate recipients, but already the word has started to spread around the halls of the General Assembly. According to Delegate James Mathias (D-38B), whose district includes Ocean Downs, no formal recommendation has come forward although he expects it to at least be a topic of discussion.

“Nobody has knocked on my door about it and I haven’t seen any letter of recommendation, but it appears there is sentiment around here to at least look into it,” he said. “To think that conversation wouldn’t come around at some point would be a little naïve based on the evolution of slots and gambling in Maryland.”

Expanding the approved slots legislation to include table gambling would take a constitutional amendment, requiring the issue to be taken before the voters of the state with another referendum. Given the difficulties surrounding the approval and implementation of slots across the state, Mathias suggested pursuing full table gambling at this time could be premature.

“Honestly, with all the issues we’ve had with slots already, I think it would be prudent to responsibly get up and running with what we have approved already,” he said. “It’s only been a year and a couple of months since the voters in Maryland approved slots through referendum. I’m not sure if they’re ready to go back to the polls to consider this. We’d have to go back and do our diligence and examine this from a functional and procedural standpoint.”

However, with the revenue estimates for slots coming in at around $500 million when fully implemented, based on figures projected when voters across Maryland approved the measure in 2008, at least considering an expansion to full table gambling could gain momentum among state lawmakers scrambling to balance the budget without further cuts to programs and services.

“The impetus for slots on some level was to help contain taxes, not reduce taxes, but contain them,” said Mathias. “I haven’t met many Marylanders who are raising their hands for raising taxes.”

Nonetheless, even it state legislators agreed to consider the idea, a quick leap from slot machines to full casino gambling appears to be a long shot.

“There would still have to be a tremendous amount of discussion on this, and there would have to be a significant amount of public input,” he said. “We really aren’t sure what the public sentiment might be. Maybe there is a desire for this out there.”

If the results of the 2008 referendum vote are any indication, there appears to be a will among the state’s electorate to at least consider an expansion to casino gambling. Across the state in 2008, the vote was not really close with 59 percent of Marylanders voting in favor and 41 percent opposed.

In Worcester County, where the resort business community fiercely opposed slots for years, the results paralleled the state numbers although not quite as pronounced with 55 percent voting to approve slots and 45 percent voting against.