- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

Maryland slots opponents say moves by the Delaware state legislature to legalize sports betting and table gambling will lead state lawmakers and developers to call for expanded gambling options to compete with other states in the region.

“There’s going to be a push to expand. You can be rest assured about that,” said Barbara Knicklebein, co-chairman of the advocacy group No Casino Maryland. “It’s a race to the bottom, and we knew this was going to happen from the get-go.”

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, on May 14 signed a bill into law to allow sports betting and to declare the state’s intention to introduce table games, such as blackjack and roulette, in casinos at the state’s three horse racetracks.

That worries activists who opposed slots during the Maryland referendum effort last year that authorized the machines. They fear lawmakers and developers will try to expand Maryland’s gaming options to keep pace, setting the stage for another bitter battle over gambling.

“With the constraints of the slots legislation - the way only so many machines can be built in so many places - a call for expansion is inevitable,” said Aaron Meisner, a Mount Washington resident and founder of Stop Slots Maryland. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.”

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said that calls by developers to expand Maryland’s gaming options are likely and could result in a new referendum effort if legislators follow suit.

“It’s certainly a possibility. As other states create more gambling options, we’ll see calls by developers to expand their options as well,” said Busch spokeswoman Alex Hughes. “It all depends on what’s brought up during the legislative session.”

According to the state constitution, any new forms of gambling must be passed by the General Assembly and then approved by a public vote like last year’s referendum. While projections put the opening of the first slots parlor in the state about a year away at least, their approval has already had effects.

Delaware Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, a Democrat who introduced the gambling-expansion bill, said his legislation was partly a response to Maryland’s decision to legalize slots.

“It gives our casinos a competitive advantage, so that we can make sure players stay in our state’s borders,” he said. “Since Maryland and Pennsylvania legalized slots, it gives us all the more reason to stay competitive.”

An expansion of gambling in Delaware may up the ante, but it would not be the first time lawmakers or developers tried to broaden Maryland’s relatively young and limited gaming industry.

In February, Delegate Eric M. Bromwell, Baltimore County Democrat, proposed putting 3,000 slot machines at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to try and salvage a lackluster response to the state’s slots initiative. That bill died during the legislative session.

Of a possible 15,000 slot machines at five voter-approved locations in Maryland, developers so far have only bid on 6,500 machines at four spots, including 4,750 machines at an entertainment complex near Arundel Mills mall and 800 machines at Ocean Downs Racetrack in Berlin, less than 10 miles from the Delaware border.

Joe Weinberg, president of the Baltimore-based Cordish Co., which wants to build the Arundel Mills site, agrees that the prospect of slots in Maryland has prompted other jurisdictions to compete for revenue.

“Arundel Mills is one of the best sites in the country for a gaming facility and is uniquely positioned to compete aggressively against any out-of-state venue,” he said. “As we’ve seen, competition from neighboring states like Delaware will only increase.”

Industry experts are divided on whether calls for a full-blown gambling competition are warranted.

Jeff Hooke, a Bethesda-based gambling analyst, said the drop-off of players who will deliberately seek casinos in Delaware to play table games will be minimal because the overwhelming number of casino visitors want to play slots.

“Most gamblers in Maryland will be looking for slot machines anyway, so the loss of revenue from players who will be crossing the border to play blackjack is going to be very small,” he said. “These calls for an expansion are unnecessary.”

But gambling historian James R. Karmel, a professor at Harford Community College, said that while revenue may not drop, there could be a large opportunity lost for Maryland if it decides to forgo other forms of gambling while surrounding jurisdictions expand.

“The concern becomes: Why have a gambling industry at all if it’s going to be hampered by other states?” said Mr. Karmel.

Slots opponents are convinced, however, that some sort of action by lawmakers will be necessary in the near future.

“If we have to compete, we have to compete,” said Carol White, a resident of Hanover. “It’s just the way the whole slots initiative has evolved. We don’t really have a choice, and that’s shameful, because I don’t think voters wanted this when they signed up for it in November.”

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