More gambling isn’t the answer for Maryland’s economy

July 27, 2012

All that glitters is not gold.

Maryland’s political leaders are betting the farm on adding table games to our existing slots parlors and constructing a mega-casino in Prince George’s County. In doing so, they are asking Marylanders to double down on a flawed economic strategy that has already proved to be worth far less than advertised. Why the rush to make Maryland the next Atlantic City? Powerful gaming interests want you to believe that this is our only hope for new jobs in this difficult economy. We know better.

In 2007, Maryland voters were told that slot machines would generate an additional $660 million for education and would strengthen our economic outlook. We now know this was either wildly optimistic or decidedly misleading. We have seen less than 15 percent of our promised return. And that figure does not count the more than $120 million in taxpayer funds used to purchase the machines or the social expense of dealing with new crime and addiction and increased poverty.

Casino interests have promised up to 4,000 jobs with this expansion — an attractive number if these would be new jobs. But given that casinos typically attract 80 percent of their customers from within a 50-mile radius, a form of economic redistribution is more likely. Most of the jobs would slowly but surely be taken from existing local retail, dining and hospitality businesses.

A gaming expansion is a short-term fix that distracts us from the work of creating sustainable jobs and growing a diverse economy. Maryland’s ability to bring prosperity to all of our communities is limited only by our creativity, willingness to work harder and smarter, and ability to stay focused on the bigger picture.

Here are some ideas to start:

l Jobs of the future. Maryland’s potential rests on the expansion of its knowledge-based economy. We have already begun to build expertise in areas such as biotech and nanotechnology, cybersecurity, space exploration and clean energy, and we are at the head of the pack nationally in research and development investment. But we significantly lag our peers in turning these innovative ideas into marketable products. We have to improve on that with a long-term commitment to commercialization and loosening government regulations that are barriers to economic growth.

These jobs will also require a skilled workforce. By 2018, an estimated 66 percent of jobs in the state will require postsecondary education. As “Obamacare” takes full effect, we will need as many as 100,000 additional health professionals to serve the newly insured. We must join with employers to take a full inventory of our state’s economic opportunities and aggressively encourage partnerships among business, state and local governments and our robust university and community college system to better align student studies with job opportunities. We can make Maryland a leading state in matching our skills and talent with our economic needs.

l Small-business tax cuts. Small-business owners drive the engines of job creation. Freed-up capital in the hands of a small-business entrepreneur is often directly reinvested in the local economy through new hiring, supply purchases and marketing. We can provide tax relief to small businesses by closing the combined-reporting loophole that has allowed some giant corporations to avoid their Maryland tax obligations. Shockingly, between 2008 and 2010, at least 68 Fortune 500 companies across the nation — including Comcast, Verizon and Pepco in our area — paid no state income taxes in at least one of those years. Our economy works best when everyone plays by the same rules. We can boost the bottom line for small businesses while ending shell games for corporate titans.

l Rebuilding roads and rail. Rebuilding highways and bridges, investing in Maryland’s globally competitive Port of Baltimore and expanding public-transit options can create construction, maintenance and operations jobs and fuel economic activity. Maryland must give a boost to our dwindling state transportation trust fund. And no revenue option should be off the table to make this happen.

l Transformative school construction. Building new schools creates more jobs than almost any other activity in which government engages. Maryland has a backlog of roughly $5.5 billion worth of school construction projects. I have proposed a new kind of public-private partnership, tested in North Carolina and elsewhere, that uses creative financing options to fund sweeping transformations of our school systems. A partnership with private pension funds, which invest billions of dollars annually, can provide the seed money to get this program up and running. If organized labor gets involved, we could guarantee that these new jobs come with good union wages and benefits.

Seizing on these long-term opportunities would be like investing in Google as a start-up, while an expansion of gaming is akin to playing the penny slots and praying for a decent jackpot. That leaves us with a choice. We can hunt for fool’s gold or we can make real investments that will pay dividends for decades. Let’s play to win.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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