Casino referendum approved; county votes mirror state as whole

ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer

(Nov. 9, 2012) Maryland voters narrowly approved a massive overhaul and expansion of the state-sanctioned casino system at the polls Tuesday, with Worcester County and Ocean City’s voting divides closely matching the state’s overall results on gambling, as well as several other hotly contested referendum issues.

Final tallies for Question 7 of the state ballot, the casino proposal, saw 1,270,239 votes in favor and 1,173,007 votes against, roughly a 52-to-48 percent split.

For the whole of Worcester County, the split on Question 7 was similarly 13,109 in favor and 11,030 against, a 54.3- to-45.7 percent split.

And if results are narrowed down to just Worcester’s seventh election district, which comprises all of Ocean City and has just one polling place – the Roland E. Powell Convention Center – the split becomes 1,693 in favor and 1,461 against, a 53.7-to-46.3 percent split.

The lack of a distinct position from Worcester or Ocean City in particular is likely because the casino revisions that will most affect the county’s casino — Ocean Downs near Ocean Pines— are already a done deal and did not require a ballot initiative.

The referendum itself questioned whether table games, such as blackjack and poker, should be permitted at the state’s casinos. Currently, only “video lottery” facilities, consisting mainly of electronic slot machines and horse betting, are allowed.

The expansion will further authorize a sixth casino in Prince George’s County. The state already has five sanctioned gambling locations, of which Ocean Downs is one.

But regardless of whether the table games and a sixth facility were approved, the state has already gone ahead with changes to the restrictions on Ocean Downs’ entertainment offerings.

Whereas the previous gaming authorization restricted the casino’s offerings to certain fireworks and “a piano played by one person,” and bans the “playing of live music, floor shows, dancing, dancing exhibitions, performances or any other form of live entertainment in or near the video lottery facility,” the new bill lifts these prohibitions.

“The way we see it, we’d like that entertainment to compliment what’s going on in Ocean City,” Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said in August.

“We’re looking at this as more of a destination effort as to how to draw more people to the region, not just the casino per se,” Pursel said. “I don’t see it becoming a big, flashy casino. I think they’re comfortable. They know their market, and like any business, they’ll start small and respond to the demand they get.”

Much of the statewide debate over the referendum has centered on the state’s Education Trust Fund, which is supplied through the state’s hefty tax of gambling revenues. Although the Prince George’s site is projected to take business from casinos in Delaware and West Virginia and bring it to Maryland, the bill also lowers the tax rate on all casinos, meaning the positive or negative impact on revenue for education is up in the air.

In the case of Ocean Downs, the state keeps 67 percent of the facility’s earnings, although this will come down to 57 percent in July of 2013, as long as the casino has fewer than 1,000 slot machines and commits 2.5 percent of its profits to redevelopment.

The Maryland Jobs and Schools lobby group, which is backed by MGM Entertainment, the front-runner for the planned Prince George’s site, has claimed that $199 million will be created for schools each year, although the math has been widely disputed.

Curiously enough, it was the votes of densely populated Prince George’s County, as well as the similarly inhabited D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, that likely pushed the casinos through. Prince George’s voted 205,210 in favor to 139,659 against, and Montgomery 217,106 in favor to 178,833 against.

The state’s other two referendums passed as well, although the split for Worcester and Ocean City was typically a reverse to the negative of the state’s split to the positive.

On Question 6, the allowance of gay and lesbian marriage, Ocean City voted 45.7 percent in favor and 54.3 percent against, versus the state split of 51.9 percent in favor and 48.1 percent against.

And on Question 4, the “Dream Act,” which would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to receive in-state college tuition, Ocean City voted 43.4 percent in favor and 56.6 percent against, versus the state split of 58.3 percent in favor and 41.7 percent against.

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