Md. Budget Crisis: Both Sides of Slots Debate Cite Growth of Gaming to Support Their Positions

By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Whether Maryland installs 10 slot machines next year or 10,000, Dover Downs is planning on adding more slots and as much as 1.5 million square feet in the next decade, its president says.

Ed Sutor said part of the reasoning behind the Delaware facility's growth is the threat of Maryland slot players being able to stay home and play.

"We've tried to continue to improve this facility here for that eventual day" when Maryland does get slots, he said. The expansion, which could include another hotel and more restaurants, "will continue to make us attractive regardless of what happens in nearby states," Sutor adds.

That sort of expansion is being seized on by both sides in the Maryland slots debate.

Opponents say comments like Sutor's prove that slots would drag Maryland into a gambling arms race with neighboring states. Limited slots, they say, would only be temporary, pointing to the poker and blackjack tables that have been approved in West Virginia.

But pro-slots forces point to a study by state Labor Secretary Tom Perez that said Marylanders spend $400 million a year in slots in Delaware and West Virginia, which reap a total of $150 million in taxes from that gambling. That's money Maryland needs to keep for itself, they say.

"No one is going to stop gambling, no matter what the government says," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime slots supporter. "The state needs to manage it to get a piece of the action."

The decades-old debate was revived last week when Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a slot machine plan to help bridge the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

The governor said his plan will be similar to a 2005 House bill that would have placed 9,500 machines at four locations in the state. That many machines could ultimately generate $650 million for the state.

Advocates disagree on whether it will stop there.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said "government gets just as addicted to gambling" and its revenues as those using the slot machines.

Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia "started with 500 (slot) machines. Now they have 5,000," said Busch, who reiterated his opposition to slots this week. If slots come to Maryland, "it'll be just like Charles Town."

Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said expansion "is the natural course of events."

People think "slots will be OK because they're far away from their residence or business," said Meisner who predicted that introducing slots will eventually lead to slot parlors "all over the state."

But Ron Wineholt, vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said, "I don't think anybody wants to see (slots) facilities on every corner."

Busch and Meisner also believe table games are a natural next step after slots.

"We already know the nature of this beast," said Meisner, adding that Pennsylvania began discussing table games not long after getting slots.

Three racetrack casinos in West Virginia—but not in Charles Town—will soon expand to table gaming.

Already, the Maryland Retailers Association has advocated for full casinos with table games instead of an increase in the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents per dollar—another part of the governor's revenue package.

"The reality is, this is going to happen in surrounding states," said Jeff Zellmer, the retailers' legislative director. "Why not just be on the cutting edge and leave them all trying to catch up?"

But slots advocates say that for now they are only focused on passing a slots bill.

"That talk is premature," Miller said of table gaming, adding "in essence, slots are where most of the money" is in gambling anyway.

Both sides do agree on at least one issue—even if slots doesn't pass in the upcoming session, it will still be on the table in the future.

"As long as Mike Miller lives and breathes," slots in the discussion, Meisner said.

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