August is typically a time for folks to get away from the daily grind and enjoy a vacation and perhaps some fun and games out-of-town. However, for members of the Maryland General Assembly, the only games in the picture right now are those that people could play in a casino. Last week, legislators reconvened to consider legislation that would allow the expansion of gambling options within the State of Maryland. Over the weekend, the Senate passed this bill and sent it to the House of Delegates, where its consideration is scheduled to begin today.
The key points being considered relate to: 1) the adoption of provisions that would allow Maryland casinos to offer table games (such as poker, blackjack, roulette, etc.), and 2) the creation of a process whereby a sixth casino site could be added in Prince George’s County. Both of these expansions of gambling would only become effective after receiving approval from a majority of voters statewide, as part of a ballot referendum to be held at the November 2012 general election.
I believe that allowing casinos to offer table games represents a sensible opportunity for expansion. I have always been of the opinion that if a state chooses to allow legal gambling within its borders, than it should do so on a broad scale. True “destination” casinos simply must offer the full spectrum of gaming options. High-roller gamblers, those who have the means to wager heavily in games of chance, are not attracted by slot machines. They are purely interested in table games. Just look around at other casinos nationwide and it becomes clear that true upscale facilities offer table games as well as slots.
The second part of the gaming expansion package just doesn’t make any sense to me. I believe that it would be foolhardy to allow for a sixth casino site, in Prince George’s County or anywhere else for that matter. Maryland is not a very large state. Given this, it is obvious that an additional casino would principally siphon off business from nearby existing casinos, namely Maryland Live! in Anne Arundel County and the future Baltimore City casino.
The legislation under consideration all but acknowledges this reality, by creating a lower tax rate for the operators of those two sites, in compensation for any loss of customers they might experience once a sixth casino opens. It is not good public policy for Maryland to weaken the competitive position of two existing casino sites, thereby setting up a situation where they get a tax break to make up for this market manipulation. If the state doesn’t choose to dilute the casino market through the addition of a sixth site, then we don’t have to limit our future ability to generate tax revenue from gambling.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that many Prince Georgians have made clear their distaste for hosting a casino in their county. Given these issues, I believe that policymakers should take a sixth casino off the table. At the very least, they should divide any gambling referendum into two questions: one regarding table games, and another regarding a sixth casino site. If this were the case, sanity could prevail were voters to support table games, but oppose a Prince George’s casino. This approach would improve the market for our existing casinos, maximize the potential for tax revenues, and hopefully put the issue of gambling in Maryland to rest, once and for all.