More big questions about Question 7 on Maryland gambling
By John Wagner,
With the vote barely a week away, questions about Maryland’s ballot measure on expanded gambling continue to swirl, in part because of television ads that have been nearly as relentless as Monday’s news media coverage of Hurricane Sandy.
Last week, we tackled several big questions about education funding and tax breaks for casino owners. Here are a couple of other issues than have been on the minds of readers regarding Question 7, which would allow a Las Vegas-style casino in Prince George’s County, as well as table games, such as blackjack and roulette, at the state’s five previously authorized slots locations.
Could a Prince George’s casino move forward if a majority of voters in the county don’t support the ballot measure?
Technically, yes. In all likelihood, no.
Question 7 is a statewide ballot measure that will rise or fall based on the number of votes it receives throughout Maryland. Under the state constitution, any major expansion of gambling — including the addition of a new site — must be put to a statewide vote.
Still, some lawmakers thought it was unwise to insist that Prince George’s host a casino if most voters in that county don’t want one — regardless of what people elsewhere think.
Under an earlier version of the expansion plan, there was a provision that would have made it impossible for a casino operator to get a license in Prince George’s without support from a majority of county voters. State lawyers advised that the provision was unconstitutional.
To get around the issue, lawmakers decided to adopt some “intent” language. Under the bill that lawmakers passed to set up next week’s referendum, there is a provision that says “it is the intent of the General Assembly” that a state commission may not award a license in Prince George’s unless a majority of those voting on the referendum in the county support it.
The provision is nonbinding, meaning state officials could ignore the Prince George’s results without breaking the law. But before a gambling license can be issued, there are steps that must be taken by several state agencies — all of which would have to agree to ignore the will of Prince George’s voters. That seems unlikely.
Moreover, Maryland law provides one more protection for Prince George’s (and other host jurisdictions): Local officials maintain zoning authority over casinos.
In this case, that means the Prince George’s County Council could use its land-use powers to effectively block a casino from ever being built, regardless of what a majority of voters statewide want.
Ads from Question 7 opponents say that last year, Maryland politicians “raided $350 million from the Education Trust Fund.” What’s that about, and is it true?
The claim is misleading.
Under state law, nearly half of the revenue generated by slot machines is earmarked for the Education Trust Fund, which can be used to help pay for education programs.
Before this fiscal year, the state’s slots program had generated only $185 million for the Education Trust Fund. The $350 million in question has nothing to do with gambling revenue.
Here’s what actually happened: When the governor and legislature crafted the fiscal 2011 state budget, they used several complicated accounting maneuvers to make it balance.
One of those involved borrowing $350 million from a reserve fund related to state-collected income taxes that flow to local governments.
That money was transferred into the Education Trust Fund and later spent on education programs, according to nonpartisan legislative staff. Because the borrowed $350 million became available for education, $350 million in general funds that otherwise would have been spent on education was freed up for other purposes.
In sum, there was no gambling money diverted to other programs.