By ADAM KERLIN
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 18, 2010) - Despite struggles to get Maryland's 15,000 allotted slot machines up and running, some legislators are looking to pass a constitutional amendment that would add table games such as poker, blackjack and craps to state-licensed casinos.
The state's Video Lottery Facility Location Commission added its voice to the argument recently, submitting a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. and Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch that says the Governor and General Assembly may want to consider legislative action to approve table games in order to remain competitive for gaming revenues.
Bills that would change Maryland laws to allow table games at slots sites have already been introduced in the State House and Senate. The bills come as Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia work to establish recently approved table games.
The authors of the bills cited increased revenues and job creation as key reasons for introducing gaming legislation. But unlike other states, Maryland could have a difficult time getting table games into casinos.
The House bill, which has been cross filed in the Senate, would amend current gaming laws to allow table games in state licensed slots sites. The Senate bill is brief, simply requiring the state's slots commission to conduct a study on the financial impact of additional games.
Maryland lawmakers are more split on the issue of table games than their Delaware counterparts, who passed a two-bill table games package just 13 days after it was introduced Jan. 15.
O'Malley and Busch have been opposed to focusing on table games when the state has yet to see a slots casino open. In contrast, Miller has been a vocal advocate of adding gaming to generate revenue.
"We need to move forward," Miller said, earlier this month. "Slots should have been up and running by now."
Miller recently said he'd like to see an additional casino in Prince George's County and supports the House table games bill. Although he believes it will be a hard measure to get through the House, he says table games are an option the state "needs to study now."
There were no significant proponents for table games when Maryland legalized slots. The first strong argument for them came last May, when Miller responded to Delaware's progress towards legalizing table games.
Maryland has run into numerous obstacles trying to get 15,000 slots up and running across the state.
After voters approved slots in 2008, designated slots sites have had difficulty receiving bids from developers. Only three of the five sites have been licensed and the slots committee said the earliest the state can expect to see a casino open is this fall.
Maryland's slots took another blow on Feb. 4, when a coalition against the development of a facility at Arundel Mills Mall filed a petition of nearly 24,000 signatures. The petition calls for a referendum that would allow voters to decide whether or not to allow slots at the mall, which is one of the state's three licensed sites.
In addition to proposing table games before a single slot machine has been played in the state, some Maryland legislators are trying pass table games before seeing the results of a game impact study.
Delaware's legislation was introduced after a study by TMG Consultants suggested the state could see increased revenues from table games. Maryland won't necessarily have a study to consult this session, as the Senate bill doesn't require the slots commission to produce a study on game impacts until Jan 1., 2011.
Even if the House and Senate bills were passed, voters and the developers of the state's five casinos would ultimately decide the future of table games in Maryland.
If the House bill passes this legislative session, it would be put before voters in the next election. It would then be up to the developers of Maryland's privately owned casinos to decide whether they want table games at all.
Penn National Gaming Inc., America's third largest publicly traded gaming company, is developing the Hollywood Casino in Cecil County scheduled to open this fall. A company spokesman said it would have to determine whether table games would have a proper financial return before it could decide the amount, if any, of table games they would have.
Thursday's letter from the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission expresses concern that the "current legal framework with the constitutional language and statutory provisions makes it more difficult for Maryland to stay competitive for gaming revenues."
Maryland's gaming law currently entitles the state to a generous 67 percent of slots revenues, which some say is a disincentive to casino developers. As of now, no changes to that percentage have come with the proposed table games proposals.
When the Delaware legislature worked to approve table games earlier this year, an amendment to change the state's percentage of gaming revenues from 29.4 percent to 47.5 percent was shot down to avoid jeopardizing the bill's future, according to a report by The News Journal.
In addition to getting developers on board, legislators need to alleviate fears that gambling brings crime to communities.
The coalition opposed to slots at Arundel Mills Mall lists increased crime as one of the primary concerns with the development.
The American Gaming Association denounces fears that communities with casinos see increased crime.
But according to the FBI's yearly crime reports, Atlantic City, N.J., which is well known for its casinos, reported a crime rate about two times higher than similar cities in 2007. The city's crime rate went down in its most recent 2008 report, but the FBI believes crime went underreported that year.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.