By Megan Poinski
With a bleak economy, no new revenues coming in, and a reluctance to raise taxes, legislators are wagering that new gambling bills will help the state find more money.
The House Ways and Means Committee spent all Tuesday afternoon listening to nine proposals to expand or modify gambling in the state, including allowing table games at slots casinos and permitting slots in every bar and tavern.
Now that some slots casinos are operating, the door seems open for more gambling, including a bill introduced six years in a row that would allow video slots at veterans’ halls.
Victor Fuenteabla, state judge advocate for the Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, “This was primarily unsuccessful because of debate over statewide slots. … Now that’s resolved, we can go forward.”
Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery County, offered a bill that would redirect video slot revenues that go to horse racing now to school construction and pensions, though he admitted the measure was very unlikely to pass.
“The point is, we have a very sobering arithmetic of limited resources and revenues,” Simmons said.
Slots at the airport
Many of the bills were focused on using gambling as a way to get more dollars for the state.
Del. Eric Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, proposed installing slots at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
Dale Hillier, chief of staff for the Maryland Aviation Administration, shot that suggestion down, saying the corridors at BWI are too narrow for gambling machines.
It would be difficult to ensure that the machines would be kept secure, Hillier said, and airport employees might spend all of their break time putting money into their machines. The only U.S. airports with gambling machines in them currently are in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev. – two places known for gambling. Maryland, on the other hand, does not have that kind of a reputation.
Del. Frank Turner asked Bromwell if he might want to also install slots in the state’s regional airports.
“BWI is an international airport,” Bromwell said. “For capturing dollars from outside the state, this is a more attractive venue than any of those.”
Del. Cheryl Glenn, D- Baltimore City, also wants to put slots in bars throughout the state. Glenn’s bill would put a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot allowing any place with a liquor license allowing people to drink on the premises to get five video slots.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, there are about 5,000 places with such licenses statewide, meaning there could be as many as 25,000 new video slots installed. The fiscal note predicts that this could mean about $49 million more for the general fund in a year.
“This is a program that brings in revenues without the burden of taxing our citizens or furloughing our employees,” Glenn said.
Del. Michael Weir, D-Baltimore County, flanked by members of veterans groups in their traditional caps, presented his bill, which would allow the vets organizations to install gambling machines in their canteens. These canteens, he said, are private dining areas for the organization’s members and their guests, so the gambling machines would only be accessible to members.
Weir said that the organizations are losing members as war veterans age, and they are barely meeting their costs with meals and bingo games.
“This could be a win-win situation,” Weir said.
Big changes proposed
Some of the bills discussed on Tuesday would cause radical changes to the state’s gambling. Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard County, who chairs the gaming subcommittee, proposed a constitutional amendment to expand gambling to include table games, such as blackjack, roulette and craps. These games could go into existing and authorized slots casinos.
Turner said surrounding states like Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have table games, so establishing them in Maryland could bring more people here to gamble.
“What you will find is most people who play table games will play a high dollar amount, so it will bring additional revenue for the state of Maryland,” Turner said.
Another bill, proposed by Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil County, would take slots out of the state constitution altogether. Smigiel’s bill would ask voters if they wanted to delete slots from the constitution, and then place the language authorizing slots in the Maryland Code.
Right now, Smigiel pointed out, if the General Assembly wants to make a major change in gambling, it has to go through the long process of amending the constitution. While Maryland is slowly making changes, he said, neighboring states with less arduous processes can move more quickly.
“We need to have flexibility. We need to have things like this in the Code,” Smigiel said.
A bill, proposed by several Allegany County delegates, would radically change the formula to distribute slots revenue for the authorized casino at the money-losing, state-owned Rocky Gap resort, giving the slots franchisee half the proceeds. The opportunity to operate the Rocky Gap casino has been put up for bids twice, but there have been no suitable bidders.
Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany County, said Rocky Gap has continued to be a “white elephant.” The current slots formula calls for 35% of the proceeds to go to the slots operator. However, Rocky Gap has been projected to earn less than other casinos in areas with more local traffic.