Casinos could give free cash to table game players under a bill passed by the House of Delegates Thursday. The measure now heads to the state Senate.

Proponents said the change is necessary to allow Maryland casinos to compete with in what Del. Eric Luedtke called "what's becoming the most competitive gaming market in the country."

The bill allows casinos to give money to players in "promotional play," a marketing device to entice gamblers to Maryland's new table games, without having to count that cash as a casino profit. State law requires 15 percent of table game proceeds to go to a state education fund and 5 percent to certain local governments. 

Casinos are already allowed to give away freebies to slot machine players; last year, casino operators across the state gave away $26.7 million in free play, according to a legislative analysis. Casinos in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware exempt promotional play at table games from profits, though Delaware sets a limit on how much can be given away, the analysis found. New Jersey does not allow promotional play to be exempted from proceeds. 

The bill, which passed in the House 97-35, drew opposition from some lawmakers who argued Maryland was not doing enough to prevent problem gambling and that proposal exacerbated that short-coming. 

"We want to take this hook and put it right in your mouth," Del. Luiz Simmons, a Democrat from Montgomery County said. "And we want to do it in the name of competition."

Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat from Howard County, pointed out that the state law authorizing gambling also sets aside money for a treatment center and hotline to help problem gamblers. 

Other lawmakers took issue with whether the free cash was diverting money that would otherwise be set aside for education. Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat who presented the bill on the floor, said that, as with other marketing devices, the lost revenue would be made up for by increased profits.

"It's fiscally neutral," Luedtke said. "The real question isn't whether we're convincing people to gamble. It's whether we're convincing gamblers to gamble in Maryland."