OCEAN CITY – Less than 24 hours after the County Commissioners formally opposed slots in Worcester, the resort business community was celebrating the apparent demise of the gaming machines at Ocean Downs as proposed, but it remains to be seen if the letter from the county’s elected officials will achieve the desired results.
After listening to opponents to slots in an impromptu hearing on Tuesday afternoon, the commissioners voted 5-2 to send to state lawmakers a formal letter of opposition to the plan to place as many as 3,250 slot machines at Ocean Downs. Led by resort elected officials, a contingent from Ocean City met with the commissioners on Tuesday to urge them to take a formal position opposing slots in the county.
“The testimony was very compelling,” County Commissioner Judy Boggs, who opposed sending the letter, said. “We drafted the letter late yesterday and it was sent out last night.”
By Wednesday morning, resort business leaders were hailing the action as the last straw in the effort to keep the gaming machines out of the vicinity of Ocean City. At Ocean City’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting in Ocean Pines on Wednesday, EDC Chairman Dr. Lenny Berger praised the county elected officials for their decisive stand.
“It was a wonderful day to see our elected officials respond to those who elected them,” he said. “It took a lot of courage.”
Berger said the letter, and the effort to keep slots out of Worcester County, was turned over to Delegate James Mathias (D-38B), whom he likened to a quarterback for the effort. Mathias, who was in attendance at the EDC meeting, referenced the Baltimore Ravens’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.
“We’re not going to fumble this ball,” he said. “It is very important-if you are going to take a county-wide or region-wide approach-that you hear from the people in that region. We need to thank the commissioners for the position they took.”
Mathias said the formal opposition of the commissioners should signal the end of the effort to bring slots to Ocean Downs, although it remains uncertain if the proposed location in Worcester will be removed from the final plan. Nonetheless, the local delegate said the commissioners’ firm position coupled with opposition from Ocean City should let state lawmakers know how the county feels about the issue.
“In the eyes of the leadership in this county, there was substantial risk for an unknown gain,” he said. “Slots must have felt like Joseph and Mary because there was no room at the inn in Worcester County.”
The governor’s slots plan calls for 15,000 gaming devices at five locations across Maryland with estimated revenues, when the program matures, at around $500 million. With the formal opposition to the Worcester County site, at least one-fifth of that proposed revenue could be removed from the equation, according to Mathias.
“They talk about $500 million in revenue for slots,” he said. “Well, about $100 million of that came off the table around 5 p.m. yesterday.”
Despite the resort business community’s shared bravado over the perceived death of slots at Ocean Downs, it remains to be seen if the letter from the commissioners will achieve the desired results. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Wednesday approved the governor’s slots bill with amendments and the sister legislation which calls for a statewide referendum on the issue next year.
The referendum will be a straw poll of sorts to gage how the voters across Maryland feel about slots and the results will be viewed as a whole without consideration given to how the citizens in a particular county or district vote on the issue. There is a bill in the House that would allow the voters in specific counties or regions in the state to decide for themselves if they want slots in their backyard or not, but the bill does not appear to be going anywhere.
While the resort business community applauded the perceived victory against slots in Worcester County, Mathias warned the alternatives could be less palpable for residents and businesses in the area.
“We’re going to have to make some serious decisions,” he said. “We’re going to have to find more revenue or make some serious cuts – things that the County Commissioners asked us not to cut, and things that the Board of Education asked us not to cut.”
Mathias reminded EDC members he was going to bat for them on the slots issue and urged them to continue to support him and fellow District 38B Delegate Norm Conway if they have to make tough decisions on tax hikes or budget cuts.
“Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to make some cuts or raise some taxes,” he said. “If I vote for some tax increases, I need your cover. You’re going to have to believe in us until we prove we’re not worthy of your trust.”
Of course, the governor’s budget deficit plan features both tax reforms and slots and it is unlikely the two can be considered exclusive of each other. Speaking only for himself, Berger said he preferred the former to the latter if given the choice.
“I would rather see increases in the sales tax and the income tax before slot machines,” he said. “I don’t know that we can have it both ways. We’re going to have to bite the bullet on some of these things.”