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October 1, 2012

An Embarrassment of Riches and Greased Palms

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It really doesn't matter what you personally think about government-sponsored gaming. The truly pathetic aspect of the current debate is how much money the various interests are pouring into the campaign, and the motivation behind the investment.


On one side, Penn National leads the anti-gambling expansion. By conservative estimates, Penn National and other less obvious anti-gaming advocates will spend upwards of $20 million dollars to defeat the ballot initiative.


So, who is Penn National, and why do they care so deeply about the soul of Maryland? If you watch their propaganda, they sound like they care about public education. They sound like they care about workers. They sound like they care about traffic, land development and the environment.


Penn National owns the gaming franchise at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The only reason they are involved in what is essentially a political campaign against gaming is that they are desperate to protect their own financial interests. Period!


On the other side, the corporate entities that already have or soon will have interests in the currently permitted facilities in Maryland will be spending less, estimates peg their expenses around $12 million.


The pro-Question 7 commercials are precious. More money for schools, more money for roads and more good-paying jobs for the people of Maryland.


Hogwash, but definitely attractive sounding hogwash!


So, in the best of situations, $32 million spent for and against a ballot initiative is troubling. Where the money goes is equally disturbing.


The most obvious investment is in television, print and radio advertising. You probably didn't need to have that pointed out, since all you've been seeing, hearing and reading is that Question 7 is either the worst or the best thing to happen in Maryland.


A little closer inspection of the investment of these millions shows us the real influence of money on the political process in Maryland.


Lobbyists in Maryland fall into two categories: those with the majority party, and those who will lose (but still get rich). The big money this time is with the O'Malley Administration, and the big lobbying firms in favor with the administration and legislative leadership.


If this were just a normal policy issue during a General Assembly session, the smart money would follow the lobbying investment. This isn't a normal policy issue; this is a ballot question on a statewide referendum.


The money that Penn National will spend to defeat the referendum will undoubtedly influence some percentage of the electorate. Additionally, there will be others, potentially more substantial and influential voices.


The faith community in Maryland is strong. Predominantly African American and Hispanic churches, even in mostly progressive communities, have an aversion to gaming in spite of what the politicians, lawyers and lobbyists say.


Add to the mix the inclusion of the same-sex marriage question on the November ballot, and you can count on some old fashioned pulpit political influence.


On the other side, organized labor is also involved and engaged. While it won't spend the money that corporate interests can invest, the teachers and service workers unions represent political boots-on-the-ground. They do it the old-fashioned way, employing telephone trees, email blasts and rallies to get their message across.


In the end, Question 7 looks to prevail. Polling in advance shows a slight voter preference for expanding legal gaming. The three most powerful elected county executives, Ike Leggett (Montgomery), Ken Ullman (Howard) and Rushern Baker (Prince George’s) have come out strongly in support of Question 7. Add to that the influence of unions and the legions of people who really don't care one way or the other, and it seems likely that the initiative will pass.


Whether the referendum passes or fails, many palms will be greased and bank accounts fattened by this embarrassment of riches.


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