After months of dueling economic impact studies, political strong-arming, changing poll results and more than $90 million worth of campaign advertising, there comes a point where there’s not much left to say.
About 430,000 people have already had their say at Maryland ballot boxes through early voting, and the rest will spring to voting booths on Tuesday, the close of a campaign season unlike any other in the recent memory of Marylanders.
The question of casino gambling expansion — Question 7 — has dominated the airwaves here, but also at stake statewide is a presidential election, U.S. House and Senate races, and decisions on Questions 1 through 6, including a proposal to give some undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition, a gerrymandered redrawing of Maryland’s congressional districts and whether gay couples should be allowed to marry.
Various polls show tight races on most issues. But only the gambling question has generated spending that would almost make a New York Yankees executive blush.
Penn National Gaming Inc. has funded the opposition to the tune of $42 million because it fears a gambling haven it owns in West Virginia and a slots parlor it operates in Perryville would have their business cannibalized if voters allow a sixth casino to be licensed in Maryland.
MGM Resorts International Inc. has spent almost $41 million in a campaign for gambling expansion, which would include construction of a Prince George’s County casino and legalization of table games such as poker at every licensed slots parlor from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. MGM wants to build that Prince George’s casino at National Harbor.
In a hastily arranged pep rally in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Monday, Gov. Martin O’Malley renewed his pledge that recapturing some of the half-billion dollars that leave the state for casinos that have more complete gambling offerings would create thousands of jobs and put millions of extra dollars into public education.
“It’s about jobs, it’s about schools, it’s about keeping Maryland cash where it belongs,” O’Malley said. “Do we want to … wave goodbye to $550 million?”
Penn National has run a campaign to convince Maryland voters that new casino revenue would not go to public education, despite O’Malley insisting the contrary.
If they chose, the legislature and governor could redirect some general fund money to offset increases in the Education Trust Fund, which gambling revenue fills. But, straying ever-so-slightly from the months-long campaign rhetoric, state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, pointed out that without an expansion of gambling, money would continue to flow to out-of-state casinos and there would be no new dollars to fight about.
“If we don’t have it, it ain’t going nowhere,” Klausmeier said.
Kevin McLaughlin, who has run Penn National’s campaign against gambling expansion, said the claim that money would go to education was “a great big lie,” and that Klausmeier’s assertion showed as much.
“Better late than never,” McLaughlin said. “It’s unfortunate that it took them this long and wasted so much money when they could have avoided all this in the first place with a proper and transparent legislative process.”
McLaughlin was referring to the special session of the General Assembly in which O’Malley and Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates lobbied members to vote for gambling expansion, while using tax breaks to soften the opposition of some casino owners — including The Cordish Cos. — which had complained the legislature would oversaturate the market before allowing the five slots-only casinos authorized in 2008 to open. Facilities in Allegany County and Baltimore have licensed operators, but are not under construction.
Without those casinos — expected to be open by now — annual revenue has been below analysts’ projections. The opening of Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills mall in June generated some fresh excitement within the industry, but earnings elsewhere have suffered as a result and Maryland Live’s performance, as expected, has begun to level off.
The Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency usually releases monthly casino revenue numbers on or about the fifth day of each month, but officials there said October’s numbers weren’t yet ready because of days lost to superstorm Sandy.
O’Malley said he would have liked in 2007 to craft legislation that created a more complete casino industry. But the political will — especially in Prince George’s County — was not there, he said.
“I would like to have gotten all of this done when it first went to referendum five years ago,” O’Malley said. He said he told opponents of a Prince George’s casino at the time that “once they start going, you all are going to wish you had that site.”
Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson — now serving an 87-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in a wide-ranging corruption probe — was anti-casino. But his successor, Rushern L. Baker III, along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, has been the most fervent supporter of building a casino at National Harbor.
Baker, appearing at the governor’s rally in Baltimore, said the legislative process was fine, and the end product was splendid — something he expected voters would recognize Tuesday.
“They know the governor and General Assembly crafted a good piece of legislation,” he said.