BEFORE LAST TUESDAY no one in Maryland had seriously considered allowing online gambling in a state that is having a hard enough time establishing the five casinos that were authorized by voters four years ago and is at odds over whether to permit a sixth. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one of the existing slots casino owners — Cordish Cos., proprietor of Maryland Live! — said it would tolerate new competition only if Maryland lawmakers granted it a lavish menu of tax breaks, budget giveaways, special considerations (like permitting casinos to operate 24 hours a day) and — why not? — the right to offer round-the-clock Internet gambling at the hardly-worth-mentioning tax rate of 10 percent.
We don’t know why Cordish officials didn’t also ask for multi-million dollar annual cash transfers from taxpayers while they were at it; one can only speculate. Nonetheless, the firm’s brazen ask immediately seemed to pay off: No less a personage than Michael E. Busch, Democratic Speaker of the House of Delegates, took up the Internet gambling idea and suggested it was worth serious consideration.
Mr. Busch has been a prominent skeptic when it comes to the steadily growing reach of the gambling industry in Maryland. It’s hard to say why he would open the door to such a radical expansion without some public debate. But he seemed to do just that, noting that in the past four years “every surrounding state with a gaming program has expanded to include table games and, in some cases, other forms of gambling.” He went on to urge that Maryland must expand its gambling program if it is to compete.
Three slots casinos have opened so far in Maryland, and two more are on the way. There are arguments for permitting a sixth casino — specifically, at National Harbor in Prince George’s County — and for allowing all casinos to offer table games like poker as well as slot machines. Although revenue projections have so far looked too sunny, casinos will yield badly needed funds for the state. An upscale casino at National Harbor wouldn’t do much for the county’s image, in our view, but it could fill the county’s coffers that are chronically depleted by a local property tax cap.
However, Internet gambling is another thing altogether. Just one state, Delaware, has so far authorized online betting — Gov. Jack Markell (D) signed the legislation only two months ago — but it will be some years before gamblers can play virtual slots and table games that pay, and take, real money. Unlike brick-and-mortar venues, online gambling cannot be sold as a significant creator of construction or casino jobs. And no one has figured out how to ensure that gamblers playing on smart phones, tablets or laptops are of legal age, within the borders of a given state, or even sober enough to gamble responsibly.
Maryland has not figured out how to mitigate the expected losses that existing casinos would face if a new casino came on the scene. It hasn’t worked out the scope of expansion, relevant future tax rates, or countless other details that would determine the revenues and contours of gambling in the state. It hasn’t sold a vision of the future to the state’s voters, who will have the final say at referendum. Why would lawmakers suddenly want Annapolis to force the state into the role of a pioneer in online gambling?