This post has been updated.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III had hoped to wake up Tuesday morning with a big victory in hand. Instead, he was spending much of his day working out a “doomsday” budget that he says the county will put in place if the General Assembly doesn’t move quickly to resolve an impasse that has ensnared his proposal for statewide referendum in November to allow a $1 billion casino at National Harbor.
“That’s $69 million in revenue for Prince George’s County, and money for the rest of the state,” Baker (D) said Tuesday of the casino bill, which he predicts eventually could help the county pay for its $2.7 billion annual spending plan.
“It’s a waiting game. I get nervous,” he said. But he also expressed optimism that the measures would soon be revived in a special session in Annapolis devoted to finishing work on spending and taxes, and expansion of gambling in Maryland.
The $69 million, however would not come to the county immediately, which has prompted some elected officials such as Del. Melony Griffith (D-Prince George’s) to urge the state and county to push for quicker fiscal fixes. A casino in Prince George’s would not open until 2016 or 2017.
Baker’s push for the casino, which he unveiled in February several weeks after the legislature opened its scheduled 90-day session, has been controversial at home and in Annapolis. Some local lawmakers say they are simply opposed to gaming in the county. Opponents from other jurisdictions, notably Anne Arundel County where a large slots parlor is slated to open in June, have complained that Prince George’s is late to the game and should have sought a gambling site five years ago during a statewide referendum that authorized slots at five sites in Maryland.
But Baker, who was opposed to gaming when he was in the state House of Representatives, has said that in his job as county executive he has had to confront troubling financial problems, including a slow recovery from the housing downturn that has cut into the county’s property tax collections. He said he has few places to turn to find money to pay to improve the county’s public schools, beef up public safety and promote economic development, key priorities of his administration.
The voter-approved property tax cap known as TRIM also ties his hands, he said, even as Prince Georgians already pay among the highest taxes in the Washington region.
If the casino bill, which would authorize a statewide referendum, isn’t approved, Baker said, times will get even tougher for the county.
“I don’t know what we do regarding the budget. We have cut everything we can possibly cut. I don’t have anything left,” he said.
Late in the day, he was planning to huddle with his staff to talk about further cuts. “This could mean cutting personnel,” he said.
Meanwhile gaming opponents in the county were regrouping to see if they could find a way to scuttle the bill, said Gerron Levi, a former delegate who is spearheading an anti-gaming effort in Prince George’s.
“There are a number of leaders in the county who are outraged at the extraordinary steps that have been taken to force Prince George’s County and the state to accept another casino...to force us to accept a future we don’t want - from hijacking the state budget, to an end-run around the leadership of the Prince George’s delegation, to cuts to the Education Trust Fund to enrich casino owners and every other high stakes do-or-die tactic that has been used in Annapolis,” Levi said. “We do not accept these tactics and we plan to stand against them.”
Said Griffith: “Someday there may be room for an upscale facility in Prince George’s County that includes some form of casino, but I am convinced that day is not today.
“I am also convinced that until we have sufficient evidence and experience with the five approved sites we should not risk market saturation with a sixth site,” Griffith said. “I as well as the rest of the General Assembly and the Prince George’s delegation remain committed to solving the fiscal challenges facing the county and the state through efforts such as adoption of a wealth equalizing tax formula for K-12 education and continuing to work with the Baker administration on economic development proposals.”
The early morning collapse Tuesday of revenue and spending plans for Maryland is the first time since 1992 that the General Assembly failed to complete its work by its scheduled adjournment at midnight Monday.