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Editorial: Taking a gamble on gambling

Talk about a gamble – Gov. Martin O’Malley is calling a special session of the Maryland General Assembly this month in hopes of approving a plan to greatly expand casino gambling in the Free State.

This is the same issue that paralyzed the legislature at the end of its 2012 regular session to the point where it couldn’t even pass the budget that the governor and legislative leaders wanted.

Now it appears Mr. O’Malley is calling legislators back to Annapolis with no assurance that he has the votes in the House of Delegates to pass the measure this time either.

Now that may not turn out to be as daunting a task as it sounds right now. Governors have access to all forms of political and fiscal largesse to grease the wheels on matters such as this. When a Democratic governor in this deep blue state really wants something and is willing to use muscle and spend political capital to get it, that governor is seldom denied.

But to what end and why now? It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – the prospect of more gambling revenue for a state in serious need of cash because the governor did not make the tough fiscal decisions to rein in spending as much as was needed during the Great Recession.

On top of the promise of revenue, Mr. O’Malley and his allies are touting the proposed luxury casino at National Harbor as an economic development engine and job creator in Prince George’s County.

And so it’s full speed ahead for a special session to approve the gambling expansion plan so it can go on the November ballot, where it must win voter approval.

We still believe that the wiser course would be to wait until the 2014 election before seeking voter approval to change the state’s gambling structure. The original plan did not envision a mega-casino in Prince George’s that will undoubtedly bleed revenue from Maryland Live at Arundel Mills and the planned Baltimore casino.

In just two months of operation, Maryland Live has reduced the Perryville casino revenue by 25 percent. What will Perryville’s fate be if that continues? What might a National Harbor do to Maryland Live and Baltimore?

In terms of the expected state revenue from casinos, here is a strong cautionary note. The Pew Center on the States found earlier this year that of the 13 states that have legalized casinos, racetrack casinos or lotteries in the past 10 years, more than two-thirds “failed to live up to the initial promises or projections made by political and industry champions of legalizing gambling.”

So, for those who think gambling will be a fiscal panacea for Maryland, think again. All the more reason to wait, get data based on real experience rather than projections and then proceed accordingly.