Sports betting, state spending issues on the ballot

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Oct. 29, 2020)—Maryland voters have the opportunity this election to decide to give the legislature more authority to spend tax dollars or not and to expand gambling to sports and event betting or not.

Support for the second question seems nearly universal while the first question on budgetary authority has voters divided on party lines.

Del. Matt Morgan (R-Dist. 29A) said Question 1 on the ballot had the potential to bring a dramatic shift in power and influence to a small group of legislators as to how large amounts of funding could be allocated and spent.

"This has everything to do with the legislature spending more of your tax dollars," Morgan said.

Under the current budgetary process, which has lasted for more than 100 years, Morgan said, the legislature can cut and reallocate funds within the governor's budget, but they cannot add any funding.

However, the governor retains the authority to choose not to spend what the legislature has reallocated, giving the governor an extra layer of authority that is unique in the nation.

Whatever the governor chooses not to spend, Morgan said, becomes "fenced off" and is placed in the state's fiscal reserves.

"This is the reason Maryland has such huge rainy day funds," Morgan said. "Under this law [the legislature] can cut, reallocate and spend.

"It would allow a small group within the legislature… to reallocated funds back to their own [constituencies.]"

Morgan said jurisdictions with more power could gain even more over their fellow counties.

"What's to stop them from cutting projects from St. Mary's or Wicomico [counties] and moving it to their own?" Morgan said. "This is a complete power play."

Morgan also bristled at the way in which the legislation that put the question on the ballot during the rapidly waning days of this year's General Assembly session.

"Not a single Republican voted for Question 1," Morgan said. "The Democrats announced the vote on this the night before Sine Die.

"They rammed it through on the COVID-19 shortened Sine Die Wednesday."

On Question 2, Morgan said many questions remain as to how sports gaming would be allowed to expand if voters approved the constitutional question.

"Just about every member of the legislature voted for Question 2," Morgan said. "The details of how that's going to work out, that has just not been defined into law yet.

"There were some from places like Western Maryland who were philosophically opposed to gambling, so they voted against it."

The current language in legislation states that the revenue from sports betting expansion should primarily be used for education spending but Morgan said: "All the money should be spent on education." But he warned that even with sports and event betting, the extra revenue would not be a panacea to the state's education funding problems.

"The state only collects about $600 million in gambling revenue a year, and we spend about $9 billion on K through 12 education," Morgan said. "Gambling doesn't even begin to pay that off."

Senator Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D: Calvert, Charles, Prince George's) said there was an attempt in the State Senate this year to have race tracks be the sports betting venue to help out that industry, but the effort failed in the House, leaving the answer open-ended.

So, the decision to be made is whether it should be in licensed casinos, racetracks, or as some suggest, the state's two football stadiums, FedEx Field and M&T Bank Stadium. Or some combination of the options. Miller doesn't necessarily favor the football stadiums.

What Miller does insist on is a lock box, to earmark the sports betting revenue for education use.

Miller notes that now sports betting is done illegally online in Maryland. The key he said would be for Maryland to legalize the sports betting in locations that the state could control and reap some financial gain for education.

Elected leaders acknowledge, though, that a positive vote on Question 2 would allow the state to recapture revenue that now goes to surrounding states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, who are reaping the benefits of sports betting.

"It's an adult activity and I don't have a problem with it," Morgan said.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said Question 1 would represent a significant shift in budgetary power to the legislature, but their spending ability would still be limited.

"The most important thing that wouldn't change is the spending cap by the governor," Eberly said. "In no way could it result in greater spending overall.

"Maryland is the only state where the legislature does not have this authority."

The reality, Eberly said, was that the legislature already passes laws that mandate spending, in essence, achieving the goal to a greater extent that Question 2 seeks to codify into law.

"They already force the governor to spend money by law," Eberly said. "They have the power to pass mandatory spending."

About 80 percent of all state spending is mandated by the legislature, Eberly said.

On Question 2, Eberly said the prospect of extra revenue by law carried little political risk for those legislators who favored it.

"Who wouldn't want free money?" Eberly said. "They [legislators] get to collect revenue without collecting a tax."

The constitutional question, as it is written, has very broad language that allows betting on events other than on sports, Eberly said.

"Little league, the Presidential Election, the Oscars," Eberly said. "Under the law, the definition events could be widely [interpreted]."

Eberly noted that while the revenue taken from sports betting could rightly be considered voluntary, there was the argument that for some bettors the activity was something they could ill-afford or were compelled to engage in because of gambling addiction.

"It's a moral question for some about whether the state should become more involved in gambling," Eberly said. "But the ship has sailed on that question."

About a decade ago, when the state saw it's first casinos being built, Eberly said, most could see that gambling was going to be expanded even more.

"They saw the hand writing on the wall," Eberly said. "I suspect this is why it [Question 2] would pass and pass easily."

Del. Brian Crosby, (D-Dist. 29B) said Question 1 would not go into effect immediately if voters approved it.

"It also gives the governor the line item veto and doesn't affect the next governor until the middle of their first term," Crosby said. "I don't see this being a big issue anywhere else; why would 49 other states do it this way?"

Tipping the authority towards the legislature more meant that Republicans in the General Assembly could have more influence on the budget in the future.

"Odds tell me the bulk of governors will be Democrats," Crosby said of the 2-to-1 advantage against the GOP in Maryland of registered voters. "It seems to me the GOP would want more of a say on what goes in the budget."

On Question 2, Crosby believed the implementing legislation would allow for on-line sports and event betting, but it was too early to say what exact form that bill would take.

Crosby said he supported the process for a sports betting license being open to all.

"Certainly we should have an opportunity for everybody to compete for a license," Crosby said.

Editor Dick Myers contributed to this story

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