Slots site in Prince George’s faces tough road to passage

January 2, 2012

With the Maryland legislature set to reconvene next week, a plan to bring slots to Prince George’s County faces several obstacles, including division among local lawmakers and resistance from Maryland jurisdictions that already have casinos.

Representatives of Penn National Gaming, which began a concerted push over the summer to put slots at Rosecroft Raceway, say they remain optimistic that a bill will pass once legislators realize the economic benefits for the county and state.

But the 90-day session appears likely to begin without consensus among lawmakers from Prince George’s whether to embrace the once-shunned idea, and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has not made clear where he stands.

Moreover, there are mounting concerns about whether adding a sixth slots site in Maryland is fair to other casino owners — particularly in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore — who would face unexpected competition just as they are starting operations.

Lawmakers would have little choice but to increase the one-third share of proceeds casino owners may keep, one of several complications House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) cited in an interview last week.

“This is not an issue that is easily resolved,” Busch said. “A new location creates a lot of hurdles in the legislative process.”

Although Busch did not voice opposition to the idea, he said he sees an easier path in Annapolis for a bill that would allow the addition of blackjack, roulette and other Las Vegas-style table games at existing casinos.

That is a priority for existing Maryland operators, who want to keep pace with offerings in surrounding states — and it is a change that would create jobs.

Busch’s counterpart, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), has said that both a Prince George’s casino and the legalization of table games are needed to bolster Maryland’s fledgling gaming program.

Host counties keep a portion of slots proceeds, and Miller, whose legislative district includes part of Prince George’s, is also pushing a casino as a funding source for a new hospital in the county.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling legislation, said it is questionable that the Senate would accept a bill that authorizes table games at existing sites but does not add a new location.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who brokered the 2007 slots legislation, has been cool to the idea of expanding the state’s gambling program — though aides said he considered in recent weeks introducing a table games bill in an effort to assert some control over what is shaping up as a chaotic debate. O’Malley, who has a full session agenda, has since backed away from the idea, according to aides.

Although there is uncertainty about the path forward, few lawmakers dispute that Maryland’s slots program has yet to live up to its billing.

This fall, legislative analysts lowered the amount of revenue they expect the machines to generate for the state over the next five years by about $475 million — a 12 percent write-down. The weak economy, greater competition from surrounding states and delayed openings of Maryland’s casinos were blamed.

Two of the five casinos authorized by voters in 2008 have opened, in Cecil and Worcester counties.

A third — envisioned as Maryland’s largest, with 4,750 machines — is scheduled to open in June at Arundel Mills mall. Project developer Cordish has told lawmakers it opposes a Prince George’s site.

A state commission is continuing to weigh bids from operators for two other facilities, in Baltimore and Allegany County.

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said she thinks “it is preferable to let Baltimore get up and running before adding new sites.” Baltimore is counting on slots revenue to cut property taxes and fund school construction.

Penn National is pushing a plan to build a casino at Rosecroft Raceway similar in size to the one rising in Anne Arundel. In addition to legislative approval, it would require a statewide vote.

Talk has also rekindled in Annapolis in recent weeks about the possibility of another Prince George’s slots site: at nearby National Harbor.

National Harbor’s developer, the Peterson Cos., has not publicly expressed an interest in slots but recently hired one of the top lobbyists in Annapolis, Timothy Perry, to look after its interests on the issue. Perry, a former chief of staff to Miller, declined to comment.

A casino at either National Harbor or at recently reopened Rosecroft, a horse-racing track in Fort Washington, would be better positioned than any of the previously authorized sites to attract patrons from the District and Northern Virginia, where casino-style gaming is illegal.

A study released by Penn National in October contended that a casino at Rosecroft could produce 7,636 jobs during its construction and operation phases and generate more than $415 million in new annual tax revenue — about $376 million for the state and $40 million for Prince George’s.

Michael Arrington, a former Prince George’s delegate who is a lobbyist for Penn National, said that once lawmakers understand that potential, he expects support to grow inside and outside of the Prince George’s delegation, given revenue challenges facing the state and county.

Del. Veronica L. Turner (D-Prince George’s), whose district includes Rosecroft, said she is largely sold on the idea of a casino but acknowledged a lot of groundwork needs to be done to convince some of her colleagues, some of whom share the views of a vocal coalition of ministers in the county who are opposed to slots.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle, I know,” Turner said. “But we all need to get together and see if we can make it happen. It would be helpful if we were all on the same page.”

Turner and other lawmakers said they are still waiting for a stronger cue from the county executive about whether he is on board.

During a recent visit to Annapolis, Baker, a former state delegate, told reporters that he plans to ask for a lot of state funding this year for the hospital and for school construction and that “we’re keeping all our options open.”

“I’ve learned from my days in Annapolis . . . that you can’t come down here and ask for revenue if you’re not willing to accept the revenue stream they come up with,” said Baker, who also recently lobbied his County Council against a zoning ban on slots.

Arrington said he is hopeful that Baker will become a more vocal supporter once a bill is unveiled. Arrington also played down the concerns of other jurisdictions with previously authorized slot venues.

“There’s a big pie, and there’s enough for everyone,” he said.

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John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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