Remember when Va. lawmakers urged Md. to keep casinos off the Potomac?

December 2, 2013

Slot machine at Maryland Live Casino. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

“Forty-nine states will have [casino gambling] before we get it,” Richard L. Saslaw, the Virginia Senate’s Democratic leader, told me.

When I questioned his math, Saslaw revised his prediction for an article that ran on Saturday’s front page: “Maybe 48,” he said, acknowledging that Utah might hold out longer, what with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemning gambling as a “spiritually destructive” evil. (So strong is the LDS influence that Utah is one of only two states without any legal forms of commercial gambling; Hawaii is the other.)

Anyway, in reporting and researching the story, I came across a fascinating Washington Post clip that speaks volumes about anti-gambling sentiment in the Richmond statehouse.

The story — by my former colleague Michael Shear — was published in February 2003, as Maryland lawmakers were debating legalizing slot machines and other forms of casino gambling.

Lawmakers in the Old Dominion had some thoughts and concerns about the possibility and, well … read what Mike wrote:

RICHMOND — Virginia’s House of Delegates urged Maryland lawmakers today to keep slot machines away from the Potomac River, where the presence of riverboats or shoreline casinos might allow the ills of legalized gambling to cross over into the commonwealth.

House members voted 90 to 7 to approve a resolution by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) that notes the “potential for abuse and criminal activity” from gambling and calls on Maryland officials to “refrain from authorizing . . . gambling in or on the shores of the Potomac River.”

… [snip]…

“This will slide south, from Annapolis to Richmond,” Marshall predicted. If slots are successful in Maryland, he said, there will be a similar push to allow them in Virginia. “Some people want it here, and they will look at what’s going on in Annapolis as a green light to start lobbying here.”

… [snip]…

A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said he is supportive of the House resolution and opposes any action in Maryland that would give Virginians direct access to gambling on the Potomac.

“We believe that Virginians should decide whether Virginians have slot machines,” spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said. “We would hope to not see any that were accessible from Virginia shores.”

Marshall said he may travel to Annapolis to present the Virginia resolution and testify against Ehrlich’s slot proposal in the Maryland assembly. His argument: “They get the money, we get the problems.”

Marshall told me that he did, indeed, hand-deliver a copy of the resolution to Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D).

Turned out that he needn’t have worried — at least not then: Busch was a bulwark against casino gambling and the push to approve slots died in 2004. But three years later, Maryland’s General Assembly approved a referendum on slots gambling.

Putting the issue up for a public vote was key to passing a casino bill in a state that had once been such a stronghold of anti-gambling sentiment that Gov. Parris Glendening’s reelection campaign slogan in 1998 was “No slots, no casinos, no exceptions.”

Now, there are four casinos in Maryland, offering slots along with live-action table games. A fifth Free State gambling venue — Horseshoe Casino Baltimore — is scheduled to open in the second half of 2014. And a state commission is considering three proposals for a Prince George’s County casino.

One possibility: MGM National Harbor, a $925 million gambling resort on the Potomac. It would be visible from parts of Alexandria.

“I see it coming,” Marshall told me. He shudders now, as he did in 2003, at the potential impact on Virginia. “It’s not a very socially productive activity,” he said.

As I reported Saturday, casino legislation isn’t particularly popular in Richmond; attempts at expanding gambling in the Old Dominion don’t stand a chance in the House of Delegates these days.

But things can change, Marshall said. Just look at what happened in Maryland.

“As government spending grows, the lure of this is going to be much more glitzy,” he said. Eventually, Marshall said, somebody will begin anew a real push to bring casinos to Virginia. “It just depends on who believes the siren song.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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Tom Jackman | December 2, 2013