Lobbying efforts in high gear over proposed Prince George’s casino

March 29, 2012

With little more than a week before the Maryland legislature folds for the year, players on all sides of the late-breaking debate over a proposed Prince George’s County casino were scrambling Thursday to press their case in Annapolis.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) was in the capital for a second day in a row, meeting with legislative leaders and promoting his vision for a high-end venue to wavering delegates from his county.

Milton V. Peterson, the developer of National Harbor — the leading location for a sixth Maryland casino — rushed through the halls with his company’s top lobbyist as an escort.

And Joe Weinberg, president of the Cordish Cos., bent the ears of key delegates about how bad a facility in Prince George’s would be for business at his company’s “mega-casino” scheduled to open in June in neighboring Anne Arundel County.

For most of the 90-day session, the Senate sat on legislation that would bring casino-style gambling to Prince George’s and authorize table games at the state’s five previously approved slots venues. But with an unexpectedly strong vote in the Senate this week, the contentious debate lurched to the House, where most members seem to have given it scant attention — until now.

Asked whether the bill had a chance, Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said, “In this stage in the game, I’d normally say ‘no,’ but with this much revenue at stake, I think it’s going to get a real close look.”

He said he was heartened by a provision in the bill that would make the casino contingent on the views of county voters.

The views of Walker — whose district includes National Harbor and another potential casino site — and his Prince George’s colleagues could prove pivotal. The 23-member delegation in Annapolis has scheduled a meeting on the bill Friday.

When Maryland launched its slots program in 2007, most Prince George’s lawmakers balked at hosting a venue, fearing gambling would prey on the poor and increase social ills.

On Thursday, however, some lawmakers expressed confidence that they could deliver to House leaders the signatures of a majority of Prince George’s delegates willing to back the bill.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has largely stayed on the sidelines, said this week that he continues to think the state should focus on opening its five authorized gambling sites before approving a sixth.

O’Malley said he would keep an “open mind” about a Prince George’s location, but he also expressed reservations about having launched Maryland’s slots program.

The deal he brokered in 2007 was intended to break years of gridlock over the issue and allow lawmakers to focus on other issues.

“Gambling’s a piss-poor way to advance the common good,” O’Malley said at a Wednesday dinner with Washington Post editors and reporters, during which he also said he wonders “whether a state our size can support six locations.”

Only two of Maryland’s five authorized locations — in Cecil and Worcester counties — are open.

Weinberg, whose company’s casino will be Maryland’s largest when it debuts at Arundel Mills mall, said he shares the concern about saturation.

If a Prince George’s venue is allowed, Maryland would essentially place three large-scale casinos along a 40-mile stretch of Route 295 between Prince George’s and downtown Baltimore, where the state is weighing a bid from a group that includes Caesars Entertainment. Cordish’s casino would fall in the middle of those three.

Allowing that to happen, Weinberg said, “would send an awful message to businesses in general that are considering doing business in Maryland: If you play by the rules, the rules can be changed at any time.”

That argument is resonating more with some lawmakers than others.

Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D), whose district includes portions of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, said Cordish’s casino will have the advantage of opening well before facilities in Baltimore and Prince George’s.

“They’re going to have the field to themselves for a few years,” Barnes said.

Barnes also pointed to provisions in the legislation that would allow all casinos to have table games and would increase the share of proceeds that operators may keep.

Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore) said he is sympathetic to Cordish’s concerns and also worries that a Prince George’s casino could hurt business in Baltimore.

“The bill’s got to be crafted in a way that everybody wins, and right now it’s not crafted that way,” Branch said.

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