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A casino-for-hospital deal is a sucker bet

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LAST SUMMER, WHEN Maryland state and local officials joined a university chancellor and health company executives in outlining a $600 million plan to build a critically needed hospital in Prince George’s County, no one breathed a word about gambling revenue. Now it turns out that the gaming industry, along with its legislative champions in Annapolis, was licking its chops.

The gaming lobby saw the county’s dire shortage of decent health care as a point of leverage. Soon it was advancing the idea that the state’s $200 million portion of the deal might be financed by extending casino gambling in Maryland, and along with it adding, possibly, roulette and blackjack tables.

The linkage might seem wildly implausible, not to mention opportunistic. But it’s been given currency, and a serious legislative push, by the state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has long been gaming’s greatest ally in the capital.

“There will be revenue earmarked for a hospital system, not by choice, but I think it is the only possible way for [the hospital] to have any viability,” Mr. Miller told reporters recently.

Inextricably linking more gambling revenue with the hospital’s construction is a cynical power play on the part of Mr. Miller, who has received substantial contributions from gaming interests over the years. And Rushern L. Baker III (D), the Prince George’s county executive, has rightly rejected coupling the two. “If there are no slots this year, the state still needs a revenue stream for the hospital,” Mr. Baker said.

Still, Mr. Baker has so far been loath to oppose Mr. Miller outright, and plans are very much alive in Annapolis to use the county’s aspirations for decent health care as a means to build support for expanded gambling and a new casino, possibly at Rosecroft Raceway.

Mr. Miller is undeterred by the prospect of a new casino at Rosecroft (or conceivably, at National Harbor, also in Prince George’s) cutting deeply into business and profits at another huge casino already in the pipeline in Anne Arundel County, less than an hour to the north near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. His solution? Sweeten the pot for all casino operators.

When voters approved five slot machine casinos in a statewide vote three years ago, Mr. Miller and other gambling advocates sold the proposal partly on the idea that they had gotten a great deal for the state, which would collect two-thirds of gambling proceeds, leaving just a third for casino operators. Now, to sell an expansion — and tougher competition — to the current casino owners, pro-gaming lawmakers suggest they might rewrite the law to let casinos keep more of the take. So much for the state’s great deal.

From the outset, the benefits of gambling in Maryland have been massively oversold and the perils understated. Revenue projections were wildly overstated, while the pro-slots crowd has pooh-poohed the dangers of gambling addiction. Having failed to bail out schools, the horse-racing industry and the state’s budget deficit, gambling is now supposed to get a world-class hospital built. Don’t count on it.

More on this debate from PostOpinions: The Post’s View: Say no to a casino at Rosecroft Raceway

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