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Md. bullish about gambling as first casino opens

By John Wagner, Ann E. Marimow and Kyle Dropp
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2010; B1

With Maryland's first casino opening this week, strong majorities of voters say that they consider the state's embrace of slot-machine gambling a good thing and that they think the revenue will bolster the state's ailing budget, a Washington Post poll has found.

Moreover, more than half of Maryland voters in the survey say they are ready for the state to take the next step: legalizing Las Vegas-style table games - such as blackjack, craps and roulette - at its new casinos.

"If you're legalizing one, then why not the other?" asked David Leeman, a Silver Spring resident and retired lawyer for the Energy Department, who recently visited a casino in Reno, Nev., while on vacation.

The bullish outlook on gambling comes in a poll conducted in the final days before Hollywood Casino Perryville opened in the northeastern corner of the state.

The casino, which features 1,500 slot machines, will celebrate its grand opening Thursday with a visit from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who championed a 2008 ballot measure in which 59 percent of Maryland voters authorized five slots locations around the state.

The Perryville site, owned by Penn National Gaming, has been the one consistent bright spot in the state's fledgling program. Few gambling companies sought to run the casinos when Maryland solicited bids in early 2009, at the height of the economic downturn, and a number of setbacks have occurred since.

Following construction delays, a second, smaller casino is scheduled to open in mid-December at Ocean Downs racetrack on the the Eastern Shore. It will initially have 750 machines.

But the fate of Maryland's two largest proposed facilities - in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore - remains uncertain. And slots boosters, including O'Malley, have acknowledged that a promised $660 million in annual revenue for state education programs won't be realized nearly as soon as advertised.

Still, 57 percent of registered voters in Maryland say the arrival of slots casinos is a "good thing," while 32 percent say it is a "bad thing," the poll found.

According to the survey, 69 percent say the revenue from the facilities will eventually help the state budget at least somewhat. Only 26 percent say the revenue will not help much or at all.

Slots have emerged as an issue in the governor's race, with former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) accusing O'Malley of having made a mess of the program. Casino supporters split about evenly in the poll when asked whether O'Malley or Ehrlich deserves more credit for the slots.

O'Malley is given the nod by 35 percent of slots supporters, while 30 percent of them say Ehrlich.

Ehrlich tried unsuccessfully to push slots legislation through the Democratic-led General Assembly, touting the promise of education funding and benefits to the horse-racing industry, which will receive a portion of the proceeds.

Debates during Ehrlich's four-year term ended in bitter stalemates, with slots opponents arguing that casinos would breed gambling addiction, crime and other social ills, and that Maryland should focus on fostering industries with more high-skilled jobs.

O'Malley sold the 2008 referendum as a way to end the legislative debate, by letting the public decide whether it wanted a "limited" slots program in Maryland.

Brett Fowler, 27, a body shop technician from Rockville and a Democrat, was among poll respondents who gave Ehrlich the nod. "I would have to give him credit for the initial push," he said.

In the poll, as many Democrats as Republicans say having slots casinos is a good thing. And about seven in 10 in each group say bringing slots to Maryland will help the state's budget somewhat or a great deal.

According to the survey, which was conducted Sept. 22 to 26, a majority of Maryland voters are ready to push forward with table games. Surrounding states that welcomed slots long before Maryland - West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania - have moved in that direction.

Fifty-two percent of registered voters say they are in favor of adding games such as blackjack, craps and roulette to slots casinos, while 38 percent say they are opposed.

Nora Salgado, a federal government worker who lives in northern Montgomery County, said the addition of table games would "not bother me in the least," in part because she rejects the idea of "legislating morality."

Salgado, 50, a Democrat, said expanded gambling would bring economic development, benefiting hotels, restaurants and residents. "Do I think the school system will be better off?" she said. "I doubt it, but people will get jobs."

Others said the state should be more cautious.

Carol Macknis, a retired federal government worker who lives in College Park, said she has reservations about table games and making gambling more accessible. "The people who gamble are probably the ones who can afford it the least," said Macknis, 63, a Democrat.

On legalizing table games, there are notable demographic splits. Fifty-seven percent of voters younger than 50 favor allowing the games, compared with 45 percent of voters age 50 and older. And 60 percent of male voters support it, 16 percentage points higher than females.

Jeffrey Hooke, a Bethesda-based gambling analyst, said table games typically increase revenue at casinos by about 25 percent and expand the customer base. Adding table games would require another statewide referendum, which Hooke predicted is unlikely to occur before 2014.

The closest Maryland casinos are likely to get to table games for the next few years are electronic versions that the gambling industry classifies as slot machines.

The gambling floor in Perryville includes "electronic table games" - machines that simulate three-card poker, blackjack and roulette - without the cards, chips or wheels.

The Maryland Senate approved a bill this year to allow gambling on card games at Rosecroft Raceway, the now-shuttered harness-racing track in Prince George's County. The measure died in the House. O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) opposed it, saying Maryland should focus on getting its slot casinos up and running.

The state still has a long way to go.

Anne Arundel voters will decide in November whether to allow a zoning law to stand that is needed for Cordish Cos. to build a 4,750-machine casino in a free-standing building at Arundel Mills mall.

Only 39 percent of registered voters statewide say they would support a slots casino at a shopping mall in their county, according to the poll. Fifty-six percent would oppose it.

The survey respondents were not asked about the Cordish proposal in Anne Arundel, where monied interests are spending heavily on television ads to influence the vote.

If the zoning measure is scuttled, it could be several years before slots arrive there.

A state commission last year rejected a bid by a developer who wants to build a 3,750-machine slots casino in downtown Baltimore. The developer, whose financing plans were slow to materialize, has appealed the decision.

Meanwhile, the state recently reopened bidding for another casino location in Western Maryland that initially attracted no qualified bidders.

A total of 1,448 randomly selected adults in Maryland were interviewed, including 1,196 registered voters and 730 likely voters. Results among registered voters have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 4 points for likely voters.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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