ANNAPOLIS – State legislators will face another round of discussions over slot machines and casino gambling when the General Assembly convenes next month.
While legislators say new legislation is unlikely this year, they are beginning to consider the issue of gambling as a viable revenue source.
Since the recent approval of a new horseracing track in Cumberland, lawmakers have been debating whether the new track will be the first step in expanded gambling for the state.
The agenda is also being set by the state’s fiscal doldrums. With deficit estimates reaching close to $1 billion some lawmakers have become much more serious about the issue.
“I am not opposed to casino gambling and slots in Maryland, but I think more work needs to be done to see if it is a good source of income for the state,” said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, member of the Special Committee on Gaming and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Maryland is already overloaded with gambling, said Hoffman, with people playing lottery, keno and church bingo and with 150 years of horseracing. But, she said, with pressing issues like education and a faltering mental health system, the state will need to explore all its options.
“Some people consider gambling as an evil in and of itself. I do not have that problem,” said Hoffman. “But will gambling be just a shifting of dollars from one revenue source to another is more important to me.”
Hoffman articulates what many in the General Assembly are considering — whether slots and casinos can work in Maryland. Proponents, notably House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, worry that horse tracks with slot machines in West Virginia and Delaware are attracting money at Maryland’s expense.
In addition, proponents say because Maryland no longer supplements racetrack purses, Maryland horsemen are moving to neighboring states with better winnings.
These discussions will remain mostly private, at least until Gov. Parris N. Glendening leaves office at the end of next year. Since Glendening’s re- election campaign in 1998, when he ran with a slogan of “No slots, no casinos, no exceptions,” the issue has remained dormant.
But many expect this year to be different. What once was wishful thinking, may get on the agenda come the end of the year.
“Glendening is opposed to gambling and I agree with him, but after this year it’s hard to predict,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery.
Frosh expects urgent legislation to be offered during the upcoming session. Backers of such bills will say the state’s slumping economic climate makes expanded gambling necessary to boost tax reveenue, Frosh said. It’s a “red-herring” tactic that he called irresponsible.
Even if expanded gambling got the legislative go-ahead, Frosh said, it would not have an impact on the current fiscal situation. Still he is very much opposed to the idea of slot machines or casinos in the state.
“People blow their life savings or blow the rent on gambling, these are some of the overlooked social consequences of gambling,” he said.
Propping up a troubled horseracing industry, Frosh said, is low on the priority list. He said there are far greater issues facing the state than that.
“If (legislators) are gambling on getting slots, my hopes are it’s a bad bet.”