I tend to focus on sports and leave the politics to folks with fancy ties who claim to be experts, but occasionally the two intersect. It happened for me last week when I saw LaVar Arrington—famous in the Washington area for his time playing linebacker for the Redskins and now a sports-talk radio host on 106.7 the Fan—endorse Question 7.
What’s Question 7? It’s a proposition on the Maryland ballots to be voted on in November deciding the fate of increased gambling in the state. A few years ago, Maryland approved slot machines and video poker. Now, the state is voting on full-on Vegas-style gambling. Blackjack. Craps. Doubling down. Hard eights. All of it.
I was struck by Arrington’s appearance in a political issue. It is a widely held view that sports celebrities do not get involved in politics, a view made famous—and quite lucrative—by Michael Jordan.
It appears those days are changing. Jordan is now endorsing Barack Obama, and locally Arrington wants Maryland to bring in more gambling.
Proponents of the cause claim that increased gaming will bring thousands of jobs to Maryland and millions of dollars for the state to invest in education. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has made a similar video as Arrington, and politicians throughout the state endorse increased gambling.
The Washington Redskins also came out in support of Question 7, a curious move for a franchise in a league that goes to great efforts to distance itself from gambling.
“We believe Question 7 represents a tremendous opportunity for Prince George’s County and all of Maryland to create thousands of good-paying jobs, increase funding for public schools, and help provide dollars for other critical state and local government services,” Redskins president of business operations Dennis Green said in a statement.
The Skins play in Maryland, and I suppose they are just being good corporate citizens. A group supporting the Question 7 initiative called Vote for 7 counts many other businesses, business interest groups, and labor groups as supporters of its cause.
Plans call for an $800 million casino to be built adjacent to the National Harbor development in Oxon Hill, Maryland, along the banks of the Potomac River, about a 30-minute drive from downtown DC. The areas surrounding National Harbor could use an economic lift, that’s for sure.
Still, the whole thing leaves me wary. Less than a decade ago, Marylanders had a moralistic debate about just bringing in slot machines. Now the governor is imploring the state to legalize table games? Talk about a slippery slope.
Vote for 7 provides a whole host of statistics on its website. Cutting to the heart of the issue, the pro-gambling group claims that building a casino in Prince Georges County will create roughly 10,000 jobs and contribute almost $200 million a year toward education in Maryland.
Dean of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland Don Kettl says building a casino will create jobs and bring in more money to the state—but calculating either is far from a certainty.
“Will there be new jobs? Certainly. Will those jobs lead to careers? Far less certain,” Kettl said via e-mail. “One big question is just how much money the expansion of gambling would bring the state—and education.”
Kristen Hawn, a spokeswoman for Vote for 7, says Marylanders spend $550 million a year in out-of-state casinos. Much of that goes to casinos in Charlestown, West Virginia, just over the Maryland border and a short drive from the Washington area.
“It’s millions of dollars that will come to the state that wouldn’t otherwise,” Hawn said. “That’s why table games are so important.”
Like any political issue, there is an opposition group. Hawn claims that the main group opposing an increase in Maryland gambling is paid for by the owners of the Charlestown casino. Nobody from http://votenoon7.com/ would call me back or respond to e-mails to comment on that.
Much of the focus of this debate seems to be on where Marylanders gamble. The people behind Vote for 7 want that to be in Prince George’s County. The same group also stands to make a substantial amount of money if it becomes reality. Financial backers of the group include gambling titans such as Caesars and MGM, along with the developers of National Harbor, Hawn explains.
Though I’m a Maryland native, I really don’t care where Marylanders gamble.
Neither Charlestown nor National Harbor will ever replace Las Vegas or Atlantic City as a gambling destination, so let’s stop pretending this is about people going to fancy restaurants and seeing shows. This is about gambling. And gambling means regular people losing money.
If the job numbers can be believed, and the increase in education money is real, then I understand why Arrington and the Skins would support the cause. But plenty of questions remain.
“The gambling proposition specifically requires that the proceeds benefit education,” Kettl says. “It’s not uncommon for supporters to wrap controversial proposals with ideas that are broadly appealing.”
The professor explained that using gambling taxes to benefit education is an approach that has worked in other states, however, earmarked money does not always land in its intended place.
“It’s hard to tell right now what the amounts will be, and how long it would take the money to arrive,” Kettl says. “But this proposition has the potential to bring in substantial amounts of new money, at a time when the state budget has been struggling to recover from the Great Recession, and the lure of those funds is enormous.”
And the jobs? Those are real too, but they are “notoriously insecure,” according to Kettl.
“There would be construction jobs to build the new facilities. There would also be jobs for casino workers,” he says. “Getting a good fix on the wages is tough, since base salaries tend to be relatively low and dealers make much of their income through tips.”
It appears that no matter the final outcome, jobs would be created, and Maryland would take in more money with increased gambling. This was the crux of Arrington’s support.
I asked Hawn point blank if Arrington was paid for his appearance in the Question 7 video. She said he was not.
“It’s not for any financial reason,” she says. “They believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Attempts to reach Arrington through 106.7 the Fan were not successful, and the governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions regarding Question 7 other than to say the governor supports passage of the legislation.
Kettl says Question 7 is important for the governor. He says the “gambling issue led to chaos” during the Maryland legislative session, and that O’Malley wants very much for this bill to pass because he invested so much in it.
“Governor O’Malley’s prime interest is to advance the compromise he so painfully helped to arrange, to demonstrate he’s the kind of leader who can pull disparate parties together, to assure everyone he can break gridlock,” Kettl says. “He staked a lot of himself in creating this compromise and is now, not surprisingly, working hard to make sure it sticks.”
So here we are. Marylanders can decide if they want full-out casinos in a state that didn’t even want slot machines a decade ago. LaVar Arrington says go for it. So do the Washington Redskins.
Politics sure makes strange bedfellows.
Find JP Finlay on Twitter @jpfinlay.