Maryland has gone all in on gambling. But with its sixth casino set to open next year, more voters are voicing opposition to the bet.
In one of the country’s most concentrated casino markets, 38 percent of Free State voters said the expansion of casino gambling has been a “bad thing” in a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. That’s up 11 points from a 2012 poll, when 27 percent of respondents felt negatively toward the state’s addition of slots casinos.
The growing disapproval comes as the $925 million MGM National Harbor prepares to open next year in Prince George’s County.
Negative views about gambling increased primarily in Baltimore and Baltimore County and in rural parts of Maryland. Baltimore is home to the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which opened in August. The $422 million casino, with its 122,000-square-foot gambling floor, is located just off of Interstate 95 in the shadow of the city’s sports stadiums, making it easily accessible to city residents and out-of-towners alike.
According to the new poll, the share of respondents who said casinos are bad for the state rose 15 points in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
“To me, it’s not good,” said Richard Bunn, 60, who lives in East Baltimore. “It’s taking away from people who can’t afford it.”
Bunn said he had elderly neighbors who recently held a yard sale to raise money to go to the casino. “How many times are you going to do that before you’re out there selling your furniture?” he wondered.
Judy Gifford, 57, who lives in Kennedyville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is suspect of gambling as a way to supplement the state’s budget.
“My general feeling about gambling is that it’s a regressive tax and it’s not a thoughtful way to raise money,” Gifford said. And the expansion of gambling is also a concern.
“There’s a limited pool of people who will gamble,” she said. “Then what do you do? If you look at a place like Atlantic City, it’s not a pretty picture.”
Over half of Maryland voters — 53 percent — continue to express positive feelings about casinos in the state. That is virtually unchanged from 2012. Much of the increased opposition to gambling seems to have come from people who previously were undecided on the issue. In 2012, 16 percent of respondents expressed no opinion on whether gambling was bad for the state. In the new poll, just 4 percent did not express an opinion.
For years, there was significant opposition to gambling in Maryland, but that receded as gamblers took their money to casinos in neighboring Delaware and West Virginia. In 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved slots at five locations. Two years later, Hollywood Casino Perryville became the first gambling venue to open in Maryland, followed by Ocean Downs, Maryland Live, Rocky Gap and Horseshoe. In 2012, voters agreed by a narrow margin to add table games and a sixth casino, which is now rising along the Potomac River in Prince George’s. The explosion of casino gambling has produced a huge windfall for the state, generating $2.3 billion in revenue over the past five years.
Sharon DiGioia, who lives in Western Maryland, says she understands why people object to casinos, but she supports them because they raise money for the state. She also believes that if Maryland didn’t have casinos, residents would simply travel to nearby states to gamble.
“Our economy sucks here more than the rest of the state,” said DiGioia, 55, an elementary school art teacher. “So as long as it’s regulated and the money is going to education and elder care, I think it’s okay.”
Broadly, the poll revealed that there are not many differences among demographic groups on the gambling issue. Political, racial, income and regional divides are relatively small compared with other issues, such as support for political leaders and tax policies. Conservative Republicans express the most opposition to casino expansion. Fifty-four percent of them said casino expansion is a bad thing for the state, compared with 37 percent who see it as a good thing
Some of the increased opposition is probably a result of vocal criticism of gambling by politicians and anti-gambling groups, said Steven Norton, who runs a consulting company that advises casinos and gambling interests across the country.
“Sometimes the complaints are justified, but many times they’re not,” said Norton, who argues that casinos are economic drivers that bolster local and state economies.
Maryland Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who has long been a vocal opponent of gambling in the state, said he’s not sure why there has been an uptick in negative feeling about gambling, but he thinks it may have to do with the very visible troubles faced by casinos elsewhere.
“As we’ve seen, Atlantic City is getting crushed,” he said. “They’re closing casinos every day. Delaware is being hit. It may be people starting to realize that we are suffering or we will be suffering those same things.”
He said: “I don’t want to be in an I-told-you-so mode. I just have always said, you don’t build your economy in a sustainable way on gambling. You build it with jobs that have more permanence and hopefully you’re creating a societal value.”
This Washington Post-
University of Maryland poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 5-8 among a random sample of 1,003 adult residents of Maryland. Interviews were conducted by live interviewers on both conventional and cellular phones. The margin of error among 911 registered voters in the poll is plus or minus four percentage points.
Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.