Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has put a lot of political capital into the effort to bring a casino to National Harbor, the tourist and convention destination on the Potomac that has become a showcase for his county.
So when things turned sour this week in Annapolis, and it looked like plans to get a sixth casino referendum on the November ballot foundered, the normally calm and conciliatory Baker was uncharacteristically critical of his opponents.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) also weighed in, saying in a statement that three dissenting members of a work group he set up might be acting to provide a casino that opened this month in neighboring Anne Arundel County with “a virtual monopoly for as long as possible.”
Baker said believed he had been misled and “lied to” by his longtime mentor House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) about what it would take to win support for a special session.
“Was I mad yesterday, yes, because I felt like I had been lied to…there were those during the session who said you need to be more angry than you are…if anything made me angry this did,” Baker said in an interview in his Upper Marlboro office.
Asked who he thought had lied to him, he said it was the House Speaker.
“I was lied to by Busch, yes,” Baker said. He said he had been given assurances by “the speaker and his folks that they could live with the higher rate structure,” that would have allowed casino owners to keep more of the proceeds and pay less to the state. But in the end that proved to be a substantial barrier for the commission that was working out plans for a special session to discuss gambling expansion.
MGM Resorts International has been enlisted to operate a casino at National Harbor.
Busch said he thought he had been “candid and straightforward with everybody” who had talked to him about gambling in recent weeks. “I have the utmost respect for Rushern Baker. He’s a quality guy and individual,” Busch said.
Baker also called out Maryland Live! owner David Cordish, who Baker said was behind a broad effort to derail any competition in Prince George’s in favor of his site at Arundel Mills.
Cordish said in an e-mail that Baker’s claims are “utter nonsense. One of the exec’s problems is that he is insistent that a new expenditure of one billion dollars must be spent at [National Harbor] creating ground up destination casino. Yet over these many months the bill he supports has no requirement [that a] developer spend a billion dollars. While at the same time he quotes the jobs and taxes that allegedly are created by a new expenditure of a billion dollars [legislators] feel he can’t have it both ways.”
Baker said over the long term, having a sixth casino site at National Harbor would create thousands of jobs and bring new revenue to the state and to his county.
“We can’t let one individual make a decision for the entire state and Prince George’s County,” Baker said. “All of the opposition in the House came down to one individual, the person who has no budget and has been the hold up on this,” he said Thursday.
Baker said he still believed O’Malley would call for a special session.
“I think he is in a strong position to call a special session,” Baker said. “I told him ‘you did what you said you would do, you put together an independent commission and looked at the sticking points and a majority of the commission agreed with the solutions.’”
For Baker, who had made a proposed casino at National Harbor a key priority of his administration’s efforts to increase the county’s tax base, the death of the proposal is a major blow, even though many of his constituents, including a vocal coalition of ministers, were opposed to bringing gaming in.
Baker said that while he continues to press for other types of economic development in the county, he expected to be back, hat in hand, during next year’s General Assembly session, seeking other revenues from the state.
Baker said the county should be viewed as eager to collect on its support for the Democratic leadership and the O’Malley administration’s priorities. Baker had backed O’Malley’s proposal for an increase in the gas tax, which failed, was a reluctant supporter of a proposal to shift more of the cost of teacher pensions to the counties, and supported the Democratic leadership’s controversial legislative redistricting proposal.
“We did everything they asked us to do,” he said.
“Let’s call the special session, and let the voters decide. I think we have a great chance of getting that done.”
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