Md. House leaders propose no-slots casino for Pr. George’s

A proposed casino in Prince George’s County could have Las Vegas-style table games but no slot machines under a late-hour, alternative plan floated Friday by leaders of the Maryland House of Delegates.

The plan, which differs significantly from a Senate bill passed last month, was immediately panned by the developer of National Harbor, where Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) hopes to see a “billion-dollar” casino that would draw visitors from around the globe.

“It’s worse than useless,” said Milton V. Peterson, the developer of National Harbor, the 300-acre, mixed-use development on the banks of the Potomac River. “To even suggest it is insulting. There’s no place in the world with tables only.”

House leaders cast their plan as an attempt to balance the interests of a Prince George’s gambling venue with those of Maryland’s five previously authorized slots sites, some of which stand to lose business if a sixth location is authorized. Slots typically generate the majority of proceeds at casinos, but table games attract additional patrons and generate more jobs.

The Senate bill seeks to compensate existing casino owners by increasing the share of slots proceeds they may keep and allowing all six gambling sites to have table games.

The owner of a casino scheduled to open in June in neighboring Anne Arundel County has vociferously opposed the prospect of a Prince George’s gambling site with the same number of slot machines: 4,750.

With the General Assembly scheduled to adjourn Monday, Senate aides and several lobbyists closing following the debate suggested the differences between the two bills would probably mean the demise of major legislation on gambling for the year.

Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), who outlined the House plan Friday, struck a different chord, suggesting that the Senate should give quick but careful consideration to the House plan, which is expected to be debated by delegates Saturday.

“Hopefully they’ll like our bill better than they like their own,” said Turner, who chairs a House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over gambling.

Turner also argued that the sweeteners in the Senate bill go too far, steering the majority of new revenue to casinos rather than the state. Aides to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he backs the Turner plan.

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said his chamber has serious concerns with the House plan.

“If the elements of the bill are gutted that allow a high-end destination, I don’t think that’s the vision we want,” he said.

Through a spokesman, Baker offered a more measured response, saying he would “continue to work through the legislative process” to achieve his vision.

Baker has pitched a casino that would require at least $800 million of new investment at National Harbor. As described by Turner, the House bill would not require any additional investment, and an aide to Busch said table games could be placed at an existing hotel at the development.

The House plan would generate an estimated $30 million a year in proceeds for Prince George’s, including $15 million in operating costs for a new hospital system. The Senate bill originally included money for construction of the hospital, but that provision was dropped after Baker complained of linking health care to the passage of a gambling bill.

The Senate bill would invite competitive bids from a swath of western Prince George’s that includes both National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway, the recently reopened harness-racing track in Fort Washington. The House limits the available territory to exclude Rosecroft.

Under existing Maryland law, any major gambling expansion passed by the legislature must be ratified by voters statewide. The Senate bill would require a majority vote from Prince George’s to allow a casino there. The House bill does not include that provision.

Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore), the House majority whip, said he had yet to count votes to see if there is enough support to pass the House plan, but he is certain the Senate bill could not pass the House.

“Many members over here have a problem with the sixth site,” Branch said.

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