Maryland Online Casino Backers Must Gain Senate Allies

Written By Cheryl Coward on May 26, 2024
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With hopes dashed for a 2024 ballot referendum to legalize Maryland online casinos, advocates now focus on 2026.

The 2024 elections won’t change the landscape of the Maryland General Assembly. Thus, gambling expansion proponents must spend that time at the Capitol to recruit more allies, especially in the Senate.

An iGaming bill this year that held some promise died in the Senate after passing the House.

Lawmakers disagree whether state has adequate education funding

For two straight sessions, Democrat Sen. Ron Watson has sponsored legislation to legalize Maryland online casinos. After a failed effort in 2023, he hit the ground running in January of this year, introducing companion measures. One bill was for a ballot initiative allowing voters to approve iGaming. The other bill established rules for an online casino market if the ballot initiative passed.

Unfortunately for Watson and iGaming proponents across the state, his bills never left the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. He said they failed mainly because the Senate had a balanced state budget this year and saw no need to generate additional tax revenue.

“The general consensus of the Senate is that a balanced budget has been developed and submitted. And, as such, no new taxes are required, nor are they ready to entertain this new revenue stream.”

Watson’s ally in the House vehemently disagreed with that reasoning. Rep. Vanessa Atterbeary authored House Bill 1319, which passed 92-43 in the House before dying in the same Senate committee that refused to move on Watson’s bills.

The cornerstone of her bill was to bring more funds to the state’s education initiatives, most notably the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The program is meant to upgrade pre-K to 12th-grade public education. However, educators and school districts have struggled to fully implement it due to a number of issues, including a lack of funds.

The program is set to run through 2032, but the state has allocated funding only until 2028.

What happened to HB 1319 in the Senate?

When HB 1319 reached the Senate, the Budget and Taxation Committee granted just one hearing without further action. Atterbeary outlined her reasons for authoring the bill at the hearing.

“As all of you know, we are running out of Blueprint funds come 2028. And so, this is the House’s way, and the way that Ways and Means came up with to generate funds for specifically the Blueprint.”

She also pointed out that illegal iGaming activity is already happening in the state “to the tune of $200 million a year on your phone with no safety for individuals who have problem gaming.”

In addition, she addressed the concerns of some legislators that online casinos would cannibalize existing brick-and-mortar gambling venues and lead to job losses. Even though that myth has been dispelled by studies, Atterbeary’s bill would have set aside $10 million to assist anyone who lost a job at a retail casino. Workers could get salary compensation from the fund and unemployment benefits from the state.

Democratic Sen. Joanne Benson wasn’t hearing any of it. She cited a report from Morgan State University to support her argument that online casinos cannibalize retail casinos and lead to job losses.

“The thing that that gives me heartburn is the number of jobs that are going to be lost and also what’s going to happen to the businesses that are close to these casinos.”

Michelle McGregor, a senior advisor with Sports Betting Alliance, countered that “data substantially shows that iGaming revenue is additive to land-based casino gaming.”

“In fact, for states where casino gaming revenue was on the decline, they have since seen increases in their land-based revenue. So, I think that would reinforce sustainability for jobs and for even the existing businesses around casinos. And part of that I think is why casinos embrace IGaming is because it is another way to attract customers to their bread-and-butter product, which is the land-based operations.”

What’s next?

Even though most studies presented in the General Assembly this year show that iGaming is not a threat to retail casinos, several senators remain skeptical.

If Atterbeary and Watson hope to have success in the 2025 legislative session, they must persuade enough senators that iGaming is an asset to the state, not a liability.

Because online casino legislation would change the Maryland Constitution, three-fifths of the General Assembly must approve before it could go before voters.

The soonest voters would have a final say is in November 2026, the state’s next general election after the 2025 legislative session.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Cheryl Coward

Cheryl Coward is a contributor for PlayMaryland with a background in sports journalism. She started her career as a news reporter in Washington, DC. She’s a die-hard women’s basketball fanatic and founded the website as a result of that passion. She has extensive experience covering gambling and sports betting in California.

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