Maryland casino bill hits resistance in House

State legislation that would allow a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County ran into major resistance Tuesday as members of a House panel questioned whether the bill would generate enough money for state education programs.

During a hearing, several senior members of the House Ways and Means Committee said they are concerned that the bill, which cleared the Senate last month, would leave far too much of the revenue with casino owners.

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Several provisions in the bill are intended to compensate owners of the state’s five slots venues for business they would likely lose to a Prince George’s facility. Committee members suggested Tuesday that the legislation goes too far.

“We’re not in this to fatten the operators’ pockets,” Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard) said. “We need to make some major changes if we’re going to pass this bill.”

Turner, who chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over gaming, later told reporters that the panel might instead pass a bill that allows only existing slots operators to add Las Vegas-style table games at their facilities.

That sentiment was echoed by Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

The posture of House leaders seemed to diminish the chances of any bill passing both chambers by Monday, when the legislature is scheduled to adjourn its 90-day session.

The bill that passed the Senate would be the largest expansion of gambling in Maryland since lawmakers launched the state’s slots program in 2007.

The Senate bill would invite competitive bids for a casino in a swath of western Prince George’s that includes National Harbor, the mixed-use development on the banks of the Potomac River; and Rosecroft Raceway, the recently reopened harness track in Fort Washington. The legislation would also allow table games at all six Maryland gambling sites.

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), the sponsor of the Senate bill, told House members that his chamber deliberately included several “sweeteners” to make the bill more attractive to existing casino owners.

Sharing the take

Casino owners would be allowed to keep 90 percent of proceeds from table games, such as blackjack and roulette — a share far higher than in surrounding states. Also, the share of slots proceeds retained by operators would increase, to 48 percent from the 33 percent in existing state law. Part of that money would be used to buy or lease slot machines, a cost currently incurred by the state.

Those changes could result in an additional $600 million flowing to casino owners, including the operator of a Prince George’s facility, by 2016, according to an analysis released Tuesday by legislative staff.

By 2016, only about an additional $8.5 million would accrue to a state education trust fund established when the slots program was launched. The bill mandates that another $36.5 million be spent to revise a state education aid formula that would help Prince George’s and less wealthy counties.

And the state would save another $111 million a year by 2016 because it would no longer be buying or leasing slot machines.

Peters told committee members that senators would entertain changes in the bill, including earmarking a share of table games proceeds for the state.

Prince George’s Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who has advocated for a “billion-dollar” casino at National Harbor, watched Tuesday’s proceedings from the audience, as did Milton V. Peterson, the project’s developer.

Baker spent much of the past week in Annapolis, trying to shore up support for the legislation among delegates from Prince George’s and elsewhere.

Talking points being distributed to Prince George’s delegates by Baker this week estimated that the county would eventually receive $69 million a year in gaming and other tax revenues if a casino is built there.

Back home, Baker got a boost Tuesday, as six of the nine Prince George’s County Council members wrote to legislative leaders outlining their support. The council’s leadership remains opposed, however, as does House delegation Chairman Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s).

Resistance far-flung

Bill supporters have also run into resistance among delegates from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore, where other casinos are planned. The developer of a venue at Arundel Mills mall has vociferously argued that a Prince George’s facility would unfairly cut into its market share.

On Tuesday, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) said he is also hearing skepticism from Baltimore lawmakers.

“At this point, there’s not a person who’s in favor of the bill as it is,” said Anderson, who chairs the city’s House delegation.

The delegates’ doubts exist, Anderson said, despite a recent letter of support for the bill from the city’s mayor and increasingly vocal support from Caesars Entertainment, the sole bidder for the Baltimore location.

Gary Loveman, Caesars’ chairman and chief executive, made the rounds in Annapolis on Tuesday, meeting with legislative leaders.

Caesars stands to lose some business to a Prince George’s facility, but Loveman told reporters that his company is “favorably disposed” to the bill because of its other provisions.

Loveman also argued that the region’s gaming market is big enough to support another casino in Prince George’s. Caesars distributed a study showing there would still be more gaming machines per capita in the St. Louis, Kansas City and Philadelphia regions.

Before the hearing, a small group of religious and community leaders opposed to a Prince George’s casino gathered outside the State House.

The group included Deb Mahon, a retiree who bought a condominium at National Harbor about 2 1 / 2 years ago.

“I wouldn’t want to live within walking distance of a casino,” said Mahon, who later told reporters she would move if a gaming venue were located at National Harbor. “The harbor is a wonderful destination for families. Having a casino there would be a definite negative.”

Staff writer Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report 

 
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