Finally, Maryland figures out how to profit from gambling

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With the Maryland unemployment rate hovering around 7 percent and the pace of job creation slowed in recent months, it's fair to say that the Free State could use an economic boost of consequence. How fortunate that one has arrived at seemingly no charge to local residents or taxpayers — at least if politicians and voters play their cards right.

We speak, of course, not of gambling but of the contemplation of gambling. As lucrative as expanded gambling might be in Maryland and elsewhere, it carries risks. Even supporters must acknowledge that there's much devil in the details of casino operations, particularly when it comes to determining the operator's cut from the proceedings or tallying the social costs of gambling.

But lobbying for expanded gambling? Now that's a clear winner. It turns out that last month's special session, called chiefly to consider whether Maryland should permit a sixth casino at the National Harbor and allow table games at the state's existing slots-only facilities, was quite the moneymaker for some folks. Over the summer, casino owners, labor unions and other groups spent a reported $3.6 million — $900,000 for each day the legislature was actually in session — to persuade legislators to take one position or another.

And as big as those bucks might be, they pale in comparison to what the campaign for and against the product of that session, Question 7, is likely to generate. Already, the two sides have pledged to spend about $19 million, much of it on advertising in local media (something from which this newspaper obviously benefits), to convince voters that the law is a winner or loser.

That's a serious outlay of cash going to everyone from restaurant owners in Annapolis, where delegates and senators are wined and dined, to TV stations and direct mail providers that carry the ads into people's homes. By comparison, it would take one of the state's smaller casinos, the Casino at Ocean Downs, several months of slot machine play to generate the equivalent in revenue for the state. Heck, it's more money than has ever been spent on a ballot issue and more than the total spent in the last gubernatorial race.

The secret, of course, is that any major change in gambling law sets off internecine battling between the big gaming companies that stand to profit. In this case, it's chiefly between MGM Resorts International and others who back National Harbor; and Penn National Gaming, which owns the Hollywood casinos in Perryville and Charles Town, W.Va. and opposes National Harbor.

Make no mistake, we think Question 7 is a bad law. While the legalization of table games seems reasonable, even inevitable, the expansion at National Harbor is a risky strategy of unknown impact that's made possible only by giving it and other casino operators a major tax break. It would be far better for Maryland to wait and take better measure of the consequences of such action, particularly given that the new casino could not open for more than two years.

But we also can't deny that contemplating gambling is purely profitable for most everyone involved in the matter. That the more than $22 million in revenue generated so far is mostly out of the pockets of corporations based elsewhere suggests Maryland has finally captured the "out-of-state" gambling revenue advocates have long promised.

So why stop now?

Here's a modest proposal. Let Question 7 die at the ballot box in November and then let the General Assembly take the matter up again during a regular session in Annapolis. Chances are, legislators will pass a better bill than they did this summer, and it will be back on the ballot in 2014. That gives the same gaming companies (or perhaps different ones this time) a chance to spend even more on lobbying and advertising.

Nobody gets hurt. No big handouts to big corporations. No danger that Maryland will have made the wrong policy choice, as it requires no real policy choice at all. Finally, the big-time gambling operators get to be the suckers and taxpayers get to play the role of the invincible house — no risk, all reward. And why stop with 2014? Why not make it a permanent local industry?

Admittedly, that approach will require some serious insincerity from lawmakers, who will need to pass measures likely to lose at the ballot box — or at least be drastically revised soon after — and thus give the process a chance to replay over and over again. But somehow we think Annapolis is up to the task of fumbling around with legalized gambling.

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