Gaming Bill Called Win-Win For Lower Shore, Ocean Downs

BERLIN — After a whirlwind five-day special session, state lawmakers this week approved legislation expanding casino gambling in Maryland, including the addition of table games and a sixth casino in Prince George’s County, and it will now be up to the state’s electorate to approve the changes in November.

The Maryland General Assembly this week passed legislation aimed at expanding the state’s nascent casino gambling programs after considerable debate during the special session. Among the key components of the bill were an expansion to table games at the state’s casinos, including the Casino at Ocean Downs in Berlin, and the addition of a sixth casino, likely at the National Harbor site. As expected, the legislation also creates a State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission, an appointed body that would hold purview on all gambling policies in the state in the future.

Throughout the vast bill approved by the General Assembly this week were numerous elements related to the local Casino at Ocean Downs, which despite a record month in July, continues to bleed red ink. For example, Ocean Downs’ share of the gross revenue would be increased from the current 33 percent to 43 percent, if state voters approve the referendum question. In addition, the Casino at Ocean Downs’ tax rate was lowered from 67 percent to 57 percent in the bill.

“This affords Ocean Downs with the tools they need to succeed,” said Sen. Jim Mathias. “At the same time, it provides protections with our established business community.”

Going into the special session, there were concerns locally there could be language in the bill relaxing many of the provisions on Ocean Downs aimed at protecting the business interests in nearby Ocean City. The bill circulated in the regular General Assembly session would have relaxed the restrictions, but they were left largely in place in the bill passed this week.

“I worked to protect certain provisions in the bill which keep in place restrictions to development at the Ocean Downs site such as no hotels and no convention center facilities,” said Delegate Mike McDermott this week. “This protects the balance that is currently in place at the resort.”

The bill approved this week also includes a $200,000 annual grant to Worcester in addition to the already collected local impact grants received and distributed in the local jurisdictions. In addition, the 18 percent taken from the top of the local impact grants and sent to Baltimore City and Prince George’s Counties would stop when casinos are open in those jurisdictions.

“The second-to-last amendment removes the provision that takes 18 percent of the local impact money generated by Ocean Downs off the top and sends it to Baltimore City and Prince George’s County,” said Mathias. “Once Baltimore City gets up and running, that 18 percent won’t be deducted anymore and that money will stay right here.”

McDermott agreed removing the 18-percent payoff will greatly enhance the amount of money that remains in the local area.

“For the first time, money will flow from Prince George’s County to the Lower Shore when table games come on line at the National Harbor site,” he said. “This will significantly change the amount that local jurisdictions receive in support of schools, infrastructure and public safety.”

For the most part, the approved gaming bill represents a win-win for the Berlin casino and Worcester County.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” said Mathias. “I said going in this had to make sense for the taxpayers of Maryland and this bill does make sense. We did the legislative work, but this is now a referendum and the ultimate decision will lie with the voting public.”