Expanded Gaming Not Likely Part Of Md. Special Session

BERLIN — While the Maryland General Assembly will convene early next week for a special session largely devoted to unresolved state budget issues, it appears a debate about an expansion to table games will not be on the agenda.

Caught up in the swirl of failed budget negotiations as the 2012 session expired in April were a handful of bills that would have provided for an expansion to table games such as blackjack, poker, craps and roulette, for example, at Maryland’s casinos including Ocean Downs should state voters approve the expansion through referendum. However, it appears the special session next week will be limited strictly to budget issues with expanded gambling not expected to get any play.

During a press conference on Wednesday announcing the special session, Governor Martin O’Malley said he has asked the leadership in the House and Senate to appoint members of their chambers to a work group, or task force of sorts, on gambling. The work group will apparently attempt to reach some middle ground on table games and other gambling issues in advance of a second special session later this summer in order to get the issue in front of the state’s electorate as early as November.

Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), who represents Worcester County and the Lower Shore, said this week legislative leaders are considering hiring an independent consultant to work with state lawmakers on a plan palatable to the voters through the referendum process.

“There appears to be some agreement among the leadership to hire a consultant to look at the whole issue of gambling,” he said. “I agree with that approach. We have to look at changes to keep it viable and I support taking an objective, fair approach to it.”

Mathias said the timetable was tight for reaching an accord on some of the issues regarding an expansion to table games in time for a November referendum.

“There is considerable interest in finding a way to have something on the ballot in November and the language would have to be approved by mid-August,” he said. It’s an aggressive process, but it could be done. We may end up with table games and a sixth location, or we may end up with nothing new.”

Mathias said he supported an expansion to table games at casinos in Maryland under special circumstances. Some bills circulated during the session provided for a straight expansion to table games, while others included attachments including the addition of a sixth casino in Prince George’s County. For example, one bill that nearly passed as the session expired on April 9 included relaxing many of the restrictions placed on the Casino at Ocean Downs on food and drink giveaways, the development of a hotel or convention center on the site and other protections afforded to the resort business community in the original legislation.

Two weeks ago, Casino at Ocean Downs owner and operator William Rickman, Jr. told Worcester County’s Local Management Board he and his staff were surprised as they were at some of the provisions in the bill that relaxed the restrictions at his facility in Berlin. Rickman told the board he had no intention of stepping on the toes of the resort business community nearby, but rather wanted some of the same opportunities other seasonal businesses had in the area.

“We’re trying to find a way to make this more attractive without taking away from the local business community,” he said.

Rickman said for the most part, the casino had no intention of taking advantage of the relaxed restrictions, even if the bill had passed.

“I don’t think there is anything you need to worry about. We’re trying to be a good neighbor,” he said. “We all agree we want this to be a success. If we do well, then you do well and the state does well. We don’t want to be perceived as anything anybody has to worry about.”

During the meeting with the Local Management Board, Rickman said the Casino at Ocean Downs continued to lose money and a look at the facility’s revenue numbers for April released this week did not go far in changing that perception.

After taking in $4.07 million in March, the fourth highest month in the casino’s rather brief history, the gross revenue figure dipped back down to $3.8 million in April, representing the first drop in a non-peak season month in the history of the facility. Naturally, the casino’s gross revenue spiked up during July, August and even September to some degree last year, before falling back to offseason numbers, but never had the casino failed to at least hold steady or improve slightly from month to month in the offseason.

However, the $3.8 million taken in during April 2012 represented an increase of over $323,000 from April 2011. In addition, the average daily gross per machine in April 2012 came in at $159.66, down from the $164.49 average daily gross per machine in March.