Hot words and lofty promises aside, the issue of whether gambling should be expanded in Maryland in connection with the upcoming vote on Question 7 has generated a vigorous war of words across the state.

If voters approve the proposal, will more jobs and revenue for schools surface? If Question 7 fails will the state see gamblers’ dollars and related revenue drift away to West Virginia and Delaware?

According to gambling analyst James Karmel, a professor of history at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md, “There are a lot of different opinions on gambling and casinos in Maryland.”

At issue is whether the state’s casinos can add Las Vegas-style table games like poker and roulette to their offerings, increase their operation time to 24 hours and whether a sixth casino should be built along the Potomac River in Prince George’s County.

“People who want to play table games at home without having to travel to Delaware and West Virginia will welcome this change,” Karmel said. But others, such as religious leaders and their followers, who oppose casinos on moral grounds, citing potential addiction and bankruptcy among gamblers, urge a “no” on Question 7.

In political circles, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Democratic political establishment–including members of the Legislative Black Caucus–championed the expansion of gaming as a cure-all for the state’s economic troubles, particularly shortfalls in education funding.

According to a study released Oct. 8 by the Sage Policy Group, which was commissioned by proponents of the bill, Marylanders spent about $1 billion over the past decade at the popular Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia. If Question 7 is passed, the state will gain $161 million annually, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services has estimated.

“States around us have been benefitting from Maryland dollars for years to the tune of billions of dollars from people who travel there for gaming,” said State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore), a supporter of the proposal. ” the basis of my support is keeping the dollars in the state of Maryland so we can provide beneficial opportunities to the people of Maryland.”

Several teachers’ unions also support Question 7 because of the anticipated boost in schools funding. But some individual teachers, lawmakers, parents and education advocacy groups, question whether expanded gaming revenues will really increase education dollars since the bill does not stipulate that those funds cannot be spent elsewhere.

“We’ve been hearing that same promise for 30 years,” said Troy Staton of Baltimore, expressing the skepticism of some inner-city residents.

“There’s no guarantee schools will see any new money at all,” opined the Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute. “Any funding that comes in from the new gambling bill could be completely negated by cuts to other fund sources.”

On the economic side of the issue, the most vocal stakeholders are various gaming interests, who have drawn from their deep pockets to fund the committees For Maryland Jobs and Schools and Get the Facts – Vote No on 7.

Those groups have in turn released a blitz of TV, radio and newspaper advertising urging voters to choose yes and no, respectively, on Question 7.

Global gaming giant MGM Resorts International, who plans to build the Prince George’s casino, has poured more than $11 million into For Maryland Jobs and Schools as of Oct. 1, according to campaign finance data. National Harbor developer The Peterson Cos., MGM’s partner in the proposed casino, has donated $1.25 million; and CBAC Gaming LLC, a group of companies that includes Caesar’s, the developer for the Baltimore casino, has put out almost $3.5 million.

Supporters, including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and trade unions, say a new destination resort and casino at National Harbor–which generated $50 million in tax revenues for the state this year–will act as an economic engine for the county and the state.

“It is the biggest economic development opportunity that Prince George’s and the state of Maryland may ever have for the next several decades,” said Jon Peterson, senior vice president of The Peterson Cos.

The new casino and gambling opportunities could create 2,000 new construction jobs, 4,000 permanent jobs at the new resort casino, 4,400 additional permanent jobs associated with the development, and 1,600 new jobs from the introduction of table games at all Maryland casinos, For Maryland Jobs and Schools purports.

Opponents question those claims, saying the figures could be misleading. They also decry the manner in which the legislation was brokered and rushed through in a special summer session of the Maryland General Assembly.

“The basis of our opposition is this whole process was not done in a transparent way. It was the result of a backroom deal between officials and this one casino,” said Kevin McLaughlin, spokesman for Vote No on 7.

Peterson, developer of National Harbor, disagreed.

“It’s been the farthest thing from a backroom deal,” he said. “Even before this gaming deal came up, people in the county and the state said National Harbor is the road to our economic development. this is where the expectation and the reality are meeting.”

McLaughlin said Vote No on 7’s campaign does not speak for any one particular entity but covers a variety of concerns from different groups, including PG residents wary about the disruption a new casino can cause. The campaign’s advertising , however, has been bankrolled by gambling heavyweight Penn National Gaming, based in Wyomissing, Pa., which stands to lose millions in earnings from its premier facility, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia and from its Perryville, Md., site if the National Harbor casino is given the nod from voters. It has given more than $18 million to Vote No on 7.

Penn National is joined by The Cordish Cos., developer of the Maryland Live! casino in Anne Arundel County, in voicing concerns about the undue competition a new casino at National Harbor will cause. According to several projections, Maryland Live! stands to lose an estimated 20 to 50 percent of its customer base to a competitor in Pr. George’s. And, when the Baltimore and Wicomico County casinos become operational, the market could become saturated, opponents said.

McFadden, the Baltimore lawmaker, said there’s enough revenue to go around, however. “Fiscal experts across the country and our own fiscal experts in Annapolis said it’s viable to have six gaming facilities in Maryland,” he said.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO