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Petula Dvorak: Maryland’s future is Atlantic City

It's hard to spend a couple of days in Atlantic City and feel anything but alarmed by the explosion of casino gambling in Maryland.

It wasn't just the early morning bra left behind in the elevator that made me cringe. Or the completely soaked Snooki look-alike running down the hotel hallway.

I could even laugh at the hookah-smoking DJ presiding over a Mother's Day brunch and the mom's special of two vodka shots and a rose.

Yes, I somehow ended up in Atlantic City on Mother's Day weekend. With my kids. (Long story involving my husband's schedule.)

So I spent two days absorbing this seaside gambling town's overwhelming sense of decay and debauchery through sober eyes. The whole place felt like a colossal bait-and-switch, promising glamour but delivering little of it.

Atlantic City, born as a health resort in the 1870s, had a glamorous golden age that began slowly sinking into urban decline after World War II.

In the past 35 years, all of the schemes and construction binges and shiny towers erected in the name of gambling and the city's salvation have left the place feeling like a defiled wisp of hope.

That's what the gaming folks always count on, your hope.

Last fall, when there was a heated campaign surrounding a dramatic expansion of casino gambling in Maryland, one group was flinging millions of dollars into ads to vote against Question 7, telling voters that gaming really won't fund Maryland schools, local folks won't get jobs, and only casinos will be raking in money.

It sounded like this group totally understood the empty promise that gambling in Maryland will be.

And maybe it even feared the direction that the state is heading, - on track to become one  of the most concentrated gambling markets in the nation.

"Leave the witchcraft and wizardry to Halloween. Don't be "spellbound" by Question 7," said a Facebook post by Vote No on 7, the group behind the campaign.

Of course, this wasn't what it appeared to be.

That whole $40 million campaign was fueled by Penn National Gaming, one of three companies that submitted plans to the state last week to build a casino in Prince George's County.

They weren't against gambling. They apparently just wanted to protect a casino they own in Charles Town, W.Va.

If they had defeated the gaming vote last year, they wouldn't face competition from MGM, which wants to build an $800 million mega-casino in National Harbor.

That one's supposed to be "upscale" and "luxury," like all those ads for resorts in Vegas and Atlantic City.

Now Penn National Gaming wants in on the Maryland action. It is proposing a $700 million Hollywood Casino Resort at Rosecroft Raceway.

Meanwhile, the owner of a Pennsylvania casino wants to build an $800 million Parx Casino Hotel & Spa nearby in Fort Washington.

So who will win?

As Atlantic City demonstrates so vividly, it won't be the residents of Prince George's County. It will be the casinos themselves, which are raking in record revenues in Maryland.

The promise that gambling will help Maryland schools has turned out to be illusory.

Since the state's voters approved slot machines in 2008 and an Educational Trust Fund was set up to snag all that coinage, little has improved for schools.

"What about the money from the slot machines? It did go to public schools, as advertised," wrote the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute in an analysis on the gambling debate last year.

"But an equivalent amount of tax money went away to help balance the state budget. The Education Trust Fund turns out to be a shell game."

When the 2008 referendum was passed, it projected that Maryland schools would get $660 million this fiscal year.

Guess what? Now the best estimates say only $260 million will go into that fund, according to the institute. A mere $400 million miscalculation.

Uh-huh. Talk about a bait and switch.

I was glad to leave Atlantic City in the rearview mirror Sunday afternoon after redeeming the experience with a few seashells and some sandy toes on the beach.

But it made me even more depressed about the empty promises in store for Maryland.

Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.

 


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