Common sense now argues in favor of a vote for the proposed expansion.
Since Maryland embarked on slots-only casinos four years ago, three of its four neighbors — Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia — have upped the ante by allowing table games at their casinos. At the biggest neighboring venue, the gargantuan Hollywood casino in Charles Town, W.Va., at least a third of the customers come from Maryland.
Whether or not gambling appeals to you, that’s the economic and competitive reality. It also explains why Hollywood’s owner, Penn National Gaming, has deluged the airwaves in Maryland with almost $25 million in TV ads opposing the referendum. Penn doesn’t want the competition, or the substantial loss of profits, from an expansion of gambling in Maryland.
We long opposed gambling in Maryland. That position was rendered moot by the 2008 referendum, when 59 percent of state voters approved the five casinos. The biggest of them, Maryland Live!, opened this spring near BWI Marshall Airport; it is on track to pay tens of millions of dollars in state taxes this year. Another major casino, to be operated by Caesars Entertainment, is scheduled to open in downtown Baltimore in 2014.
The arguments against expanding gambling aren’t illegitimate, but they’re unconvincing given how the debate and the reality have evolved. It’s true that slot machines amount to a regressive tax, hurting poor people who can ill afford to play and lose. But table games — the main new element at stake in the referendum — attract more high-rollers than lunch-bucket gamblers. MGM Resorts International, the company with the inside track to build the casino in Prince George’s, says table-game minimums there would run from $25 to $100 a hand. Most low-rollers would be priced out.
It’s true that higher tax revenue from gambling, although earmarked for education, would not necessarily increase overall state education funding. Money in the state budget is fungible, and lawmakers would be free to redirect other funds away from schools to competing priorities.
However, gambling is already yielding millions in tax revenue, and it would produce more if voters approve the expansion. By the end of this decade, if the referendum is successful, the state estimates that the expansion would add $199 million annually to a budget of around $18 billion. Of that contribution, tens of millions would come from the casino in Prince George’s. Even if those projections are overstated, as some studies have argued, the contribution to Maryland’s budget would be critical in a state chronically struggling to balance its budget.