Bill Easing Casino Restrictions Fails; Table Games Falls Short

BERLIN — A possible expansion to table games at approved slots venues in Maryland, including the Casino at Ocean Downs, died on the table late Monday night as the General Assembly session expired.

State lawmakers could not come to an agreement on a bill that would put a possible expansion to table games such as blackjack, roulette, craps and poker, for example, in front of voters in Maryland in a future referendum as the session expired. Like so many other pieces of legislation, the expanded gaming bill got caught up in a swarm of debate about the state’s budget as the session expired.

The Senate passed its version of the bill, which would allow for an expansion to table games at approved slots venues in the state, including Ocean Downs, if approved by referendum. The bill would have also approved a sixth casino in Maryland in Prince George’s County, and included language relaxing some of the restrictions on food and drink giveaways and the types of entertainment allowed at the Casino at Ocean Downs.

The Senate approved the bill, but it never came to vote in the House before the session timed out. Sen. Jim Mathias, who has recused himself from any votes related to Ocean Downs after a possible conflict was called into question because his private sector employer, Royal Plus, did some contracting work at the facility, said he would have supported a bill that allowed for table games without relaxing the restrictions at Ocean Downs.

“There was a bill that strictly dealt with an expansion to table games that I supported, but I couldn’t support the bill that relaxed the restrictions at Ocean Downs,” he said. “The bill I was in favor of didn’t take any of those restrictions away.”

Ocean City resisted slots at Ocean Downs from the beginning when the issue was first debated several years ago because of concerns of competition for tourist dollars, but coalesced somewhat when certain restrictions were put in place such as food and drink giveaways. However, the bill that would have opened the door to table game expansion relaxed many of those prohibitions. Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38-B) said he was fighting late Monday to keep those restrictions in place.

“Up until around 11 p.m. on Monday, we were battling that one,” he said. “I had already secured amendments to keep the restrictions in place at Ocean Downs, and it looked like it was going to get through, but it never came to a vote.”

McDermott said the amendments he added to the legislation would have allowed Ocean Downs to expand its live entertainment offerings.

“The only restriction lifted would have been a relaxation of the types of entertainment allowed, and Ocean City was agreeable to that,” he said. “As it stands now, about the only thing they can have out there is a one-armed piano player. There wasn’t going to be any lifting of the restrictions on free food and drinks and we worked hard on that.”

While state lawmakers did not vote on the table games expansion bill, they did approve legislation extending a sunset provision for an allocation of up to $1.2 million for Ocean Downs from the horseracing purse fund generated by slots to help subsidize operating costs.

“We thought all along the bill allowing table games was going to get passed and the Casino at Ocean Downs needs that because right now, Ocean Downs is losing a couple of million dollars a year,” McDermott said. “With the track losing money, we passed a bill that will allow that $1.2 million subsidy from horseracing funds to help with operating costs at Ocean Downs. That’s a good deal for our district because it’s important we preserve harness racing in our county. It’s part of our legacy and it employees a lot of people.”