Special Session Fatigue in Maryland (Slot Machines Were the Last Straw)

Posted on April 19, 2009

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The once-a-year session of the Maryland General Assembly has been a historical curiosity for a long time. Now it is becoming a downright embarrassment.

Maryland needed a Special Session, after four years of deadlock over slot machines. The Special Session brought progress — the lawmakers agreed they were unworthy to decide on slots within the confines of the State House. They kicked the decision upstairs to the Maryland voters in a referendum.

The referendum produced a decisive mathematical result — but with ambiguous meaning. A majority of voters supports slot-machine gambling someplace else in Maryland, not near my house. And the support comes with the grudging caveat that slots are a last resort to save racing for horses and to save education for children, in that order.

The details of implementation were crafted by the General Assembly, which produced a free-market fiasco. Hardly anyone in the business world wants to take a gamble on slot machines, in the current economy. The dominant horse-racing corporation in Maryland is in bankruptcy. We seem headed toward a chaotic system with one mega-casino at Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County, and a handful of slots scattered at other locations. (Contrary to the will of the voters in the referendum, few if any of the slot machines will be at racetracks.) The one racetrack still in the running for slots, Ocean Downs, near Ocean City in Worcester County, cannot guarantee the continuance of horse racing in the long run. The only sure thing at Ocean Downs is that the racetrack will permanently close its backstretch, where horses are stabled and trained, at the end of 2009.

After all that, the General Assembly threatened another Special Session this year, about drivers’ licenses. The legislators caved, however, because their only viable course was to follow the federal “Real ID” mandate.

Reasons for Special Sessions proliferate. Now there’s talk about a Special Session on energy regulation in Maryland. (Energy regulation is sooo complicated, too much for the Assembly to handle in a regular session.)

The legislators’ difficulty in concluding their work during the annual three-month regular session, and the session-ending spectacle of Sine Die chaos, lead the suspicious mind to wonder if something is not fundamentally broken in the Maryland General Assembly. And if it’s broken, it needs to be fixed. — Bernie Hayden

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