Internet gambling, which could bring casinos to every home, office or smartphone, has moved from the periphery of Maryland's debate over expanded gambling to center stage.
Speaker Michael E. Busch informed Democratic members of the House of Delegates on Wednesday that Internet gambling should be among the topics explored in next week's special legislative session. And Thursday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley gave the proposal a little more momentum when she refused to rule out inclusion of Internet gambling in an overall casino expansion bill.
"There have been conversations about it," said Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's communications director. "Nothing is final yet on the bill. It's a work in progress."
The sudden emergence of the Internet gambling issue raises the possibility that the General Assembly could approve a radical change to Maryland's gambling program with little more than a week for public discussion and limited time for hearings.
"It's not late in the game for something like this to be part of whatever the final package is," said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It's absolutely late in the game for something like this to get the discussion it deserves."
Critics say such a move, which was hardly mentioned in a recent work group's study of casino expansion, is fraught with dangers, including an increase in the number of gambling addicts — including minors who would be denied entry to a conventional casino. But others see it as the natural evolution of Maryland's venture into legalized gambling and a necessary step to compete with neighboring states.
The issue emerged early in the week, when Maryland Live Casino owner David Cordish listed permission to offer Internet gambling as one of the conditions that could persuade him to ease his opposition to a proposed casino in Prince George's County. The addition of a sixth casino — and related matters, such as allowing table games at all casinos — are pivotal issues for the special session.
Cordish's wish received a boost Wednesday when Busch emailed members of his caucus to say that online gambling should be considered in the context of Maryland's effort to remain competitive.
"Since the voters overwhelmingly approved the establishment of a Maryland gaming program in 2008, every surrounding state with a gaming program has expanded to include table games and, in some cases, other forms of gambling," Busch wrote. "In order to maintain a healthy and competitive gaming program that attracts players from beyond Maryland's borders and keeps Maryland gamers at home, we must put our gaming program on par with other jurisdictions in the Mid-Atlantic."
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Busch, said Thursday that the speaker's focus during the special session will be on crafting a gambling program that yields the best return for state taxpayers.
"To that end, the House will consider Internet gaming among a menu of options. Only if it is determined to be in the State's best interest will it be put before the voters in November," Hughes said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, like O'Malley a Democrat, could not be reached to comment Thursday.
In June, Delaware became the first state in the region to open the door for such gambling. Its legislature gave the OK for casinos to let customers play Internet electronic poker, blackjack and slots from remote computers, cellphones and other electronic devices in that state.
Warren Deschenaux, chief policy analyst for Maryland's Department of Legislative Services, said the Delaware program has yet to start up. Among the hurdles the state faces, he said, is that it's unclear whether technology exists to let a casino tell with certainty that a customer's computer is within the state.
Delaware moved forward with Internet gambling on the strength of a Department of Justice ruling. It reversed a 50-year interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act that outlawed most forms of gambling over electronic wire. The ruling held that the law applied only to sports betting — clearing the way for in-state lottery sales over the Internet.
Some states, including Delaware, have interpreted that as opening the door for casino gambling as well.
John Warren Kindt, a business professor at the University of Illinois and a leading critic of the gambling industry, said states that launch Internet gambling programs based on the ruling are taking a big risk. He said the Department of Justice's ruling was poorly received by Congress and is likely to be reversed if there's a change of presidential administrations.
Kindt said the casino industry is determined to find ways to break out of their buildings and bring the full range of gambling offerings to every work station, even at the risk of lost productivity.
"This would absolutely strategically devastate the U.S. economy," he said. "This is like throwing gasoline on the fires of the recession."