The battle now begins for the November ballot measure that would amend the Maryland constitution to allow slot machine gambling in the state of Maryland. The idea of slots in Maryland has been a long time coming-- since at least 2002, when it was a hallmark of Bobby Ehrlich's campaign. Ehrlich was thwarted for four consecutive years by House Speaker Anheuser Busch. Thwarted until his defeat... and a massive state deficit caused by the profligate and morally bankrupt spending habits of a General Assembly addicted to our wallets.
Mark me down as a member of the anti-slots group, but not for the reasons others oppose slots.
I actually think that expanded gambling in Maryland would be a great thing. Gambling is largely recession proof. Gambling in America today -- since the collapse of La Cosa Nostra -- is an incredibly well-regulated and profitable business. It is one of the reasons that Henderson County, Nevada (which encompasses Las Vegas) is still one of the largest growing areas in the country. And gambling jobs pay well, since good pay is a great incentive against theft.
But I think the slots referendum is bad law, and I think the implementation chosen by the Unholy Triumvirate of O'Guvnah, Mikey Miller, and Speaker Anheuser Busch is downright stupid.
It's bad law because using a referendum to provide revenue raising measures is expressly forbidden in the state constitution. It's lazy legislation, and a good signal that most (if not all) of the arrogan twits in the General Assembly have been there too long. Lacking the courage of even a Private Eddie Slovik, the General Assembly punted in November. There is a yellow streak in Maryland, and its not the Calvert crest in the flag. It runs right down the center of the State House.
It's stupid, because if slots should be anywhere, it is at racetracks. But this slots bill puts the slots in Baltimore City at a new parlor to be built near M & T Bank Stadium, not at Pimlico. It's stupid because it doesn't use a natural location like the Timonium Fairgrounds-- one the state's greatest wastes of valuable land. It's stupid because it basically forces Worcester County to host a slots parlor that it doesn't want.
And it is stupid because it doesn't go far enough.
Here is my idea. Let's go whole hog. Forget slots, we need legalized gambling. Full-blown, all-in, all-out gambling. But not in our neighbhorhoods. Not in our cities. Not in our towns.
We need to resurrect the idea of the old bay schooners that used to travel to Tolchester and Rock Hall. Build a fleet of solid bay schooners that are essentially floating casinos. Set up routes that are natural tourist destinations, and limit attendance to adults over the age of 21. The routes I have in mind? Simple:
- Baltimore to Havre de Grace
- Baltimore to Rock Hall
- Baltimore to Annapolis
- Annapolis to St. Michaels/Kent Island
- Salisbury to Crisfield
- Cambridge to Crisfield
- Crisfield to Solomon's Island
You could even run an ocean-going boat out of the Ocean City area.
Gambling would begin a half-hour out of port, and end one half-hour before entering the next port. Alcohol would flow freely. Bands and music would play. The boats could even be themed around ideas like a Roaring 20s boat, an Old West Saloon, a Vegas-theme casino, etc. Just like in real casinos, passengers would buy in chips, and cash out at the end of the night. Income taxes could be collected directly at the end of the trip, reducing the cost of enforcement and collection through the Comptroller's Office.
Smart tourism types could even build packages around the boats: take the Friday night boat to Havre de Grace and come back on the Sunday return trip (or to St. Michaels, etc.) Maryland could single-handedly build a new tourism industry around some of its smaller towns, antique destinations, and beds and breakfasts.
Coupled with the Maryland Lottery, you open a whole new bevy for promoting our thirty-year old lottery. Imagine drawings held live right on the boats. Keno parlors on the boats. Special lottery-sponsored raffles.
Throw in a reasonable mandate for non-profit support -- through casino night fundraisers -- and you can raise the level of philanthropic giving in Maryland.
And the best part? We handle the concern of community activists who don't want gambling and slots in their towns (like those in Lutherville-Timonium).
It would also provide employment opportunities for watermen who are seeing their livelihoods slowly ground down from pollution or catch limits. Who better to operate a fleet of bay schooners than men who have spent their entire lives on the water?
It's an option that should be explored before we run headlong into a dumb slots plan that is both legally questionable and economically unsound.