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Group says casino license is a steal

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s casino operators are licensed at a fraction of the fair market value for such an award, according to a report released Wednesday by policy analysts.

The Maryland Public Policy Institute and Maryland Tax Education Foundation calculate that the Prince George’s County casino license approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley in August and then by voters on Election Day, is worth almost $500 million.

But the fee for that license is just $18 million, a figure determined by a simple formula that charges operators $3 million for every 500 slot machines they intend to operate.

MGM Resorts International Inc., the prohibitive favorite to win a bid that would land a casino at National Harbor, wants to operate 3,000 slot machines at an $800 million facility at the luxury mixed-use development.

Jeff Hooke, an investment banker who conducted the study, said the current license fee model amounted to a huge giveaway to casino companies. The market analysis helped to explain why MGM barely batted an eye while spending more than $40 million to campaign for expanded gambling in Maryland.

“Why did MGM drop (almost) $50 million? Because they’re getting something worth 500,” Hooke said.

Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said that in 2003 his group advised the state to award licenses by auctioning them off to the highest bidder. Maryland chose its present licensing process instead, but Hooke admitted that the state recouped much of the potential money lost through what was then the nation’s highest tax rate on slots, 67 percent.

The state’s new casino gambling law lowers that rate at varying degrees for every operator without adjusting the license fee. Hooke said the state failed in that respect.

“They didn’t really have somebody to value the license,” he said.

Hooke acknowledged that Maryland was not unique. Few states offer casino licenses for market value, he said. In some states, a successful licensee has paid the state a discount rate before flipping that license to a third party for a huge profit.

Casinos can afford to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for some licenses, Hooke said, because profits at a location as lucrative as National Harbor are so great. His analysis projected that MGM would receive a 17 percent annual return on that $500 million initial investment after taking into account various taxes and yearly capital improvements.

That means the state has missed out on a significant one-time revenue opportunity, Summers said.

“The state of Maryland and the taxpayers would have done a whole lot better if they had just put the license on eBay,” he said.

Hooke and Summers said they’d like to see Maryland’s elected officials negotiate a new deal with MGM to get closer to that potential $500 million total. But state lawmakers in Annapolis have grown tired of debating issues surrounding the state’s young casino industry.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the license fee had “always been somewhat arbitrary,” but he noted that the cost reflected Maryland’s need to compete with neighboring states that had a head start in the casino business.

Asked Wednesday if the license fee could be adjusted, Busch lowered his eyes and shook his head. Both he and Gov. Martin O’Malley have previously expressed glee that the casino issue was resolved in an August special session after years of debate that came to a head when a budget agreement between Democratic leaders was torpedoed by disagreement over allowing a Prince George’s County casino on the final day of the legislature’s regular session in April.

“There are numerous different opinions out there,” Busch said. “I think Mr. Hooke and others certainly had the opportunity to come down and testify.”