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Md. lawmakers look to ease opposition to slots in Prince George’s

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In a bid to ease opposition to a new slots site in Prince George’s County, Maryland lawmakers are crafting legislation that contains several sweeteners for the state’s other casinos, which stand to lose business if a new location opens.

The bill, as described by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., would increase the share of proceeds that casino operators are allowed to keep and would authorize the addition of Las Vegas-style table games, such as blackjack and roulette. Miller (D-Calvert) said operators might be able to keep all proceeds from those new offerings.

The bill taking shape will be the opening gambit in what is expected to be a session-long debate over the future of gambling in the state. As Maryland has struggled to open five casinos authorized by voters in 2008, surrounding states have taken steps to make their programs more lucrative.

The bill that Miller described calls for competitive bids for a sixth slots site to be located in a small swath of western Prince George’s that includes Rosecroft Raceway and National Harbor. A portion of the proceeds from the new casino would be earmarked for a new hospital system in the county.

Miller said the legislation would net more revenue for the state and make Maryland more competitive with West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, which he said are “eating our lunch daily.”

A week into the 90-day legislative session, however, such a bill still faces a complicated path to passage, particularly in the House of Delegates.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said Friday that he would wait to see what the Senate produces before assessing whether there is the “appetite” in his chamber to delve into the issue.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has asked lawmakers from Prince George’s to “keep an open mind” on this issue, citing the potential revenue that gambling could yield for the hospital and other priorities.

But Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) said Friday that lawmakers from her county remain divided over hosting a casino and have had no formal discussions about the prospect.

“Should a bill get traction, we will have to have that conversation,” said Griffith, who is chairwoman of the county’s House delegation.

Meanwhile, the developer of the state’s largest authorized slots casino — scheduled to open in June at Arundel Mills mall — remains adamantly opposed to new competition.

Asked this week whether he could envision any concessions from the state that would make a Prince George’s location acceptable, Joe Weinberg, a principal with Cordish Cos., initially offered a one-word response.

“NO!” Weinberg said in an interview conducted by e-mail.

“The fairest policy for all is to allow the existing sites to get up and operating and stabilized, and if table games are to be added, to do so only at the already approved sites,” Weinberg later said.

Of the five previously authorized slots locations in Maryland, the Cordish facility in Anne Arundel County would likely be hurt the most by a casino in Prince George’s.

Under the expansion scenario described by Miller, Maryland would essentially place three casinos along a 40-miles 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 the middle.

Miller said the Prince George’s site would primarily attract gamblers from Virginia and the District, markets the Arundel Mills site is heavily targeting, too, Weinberg said.

Penn National Gaming, which recently reopened Rosecroft, has been pushing lawmakers to allow slots and table games at the Fort Washington horse-racing track.

More recently, talk has rekindled about the possibility of slots at nearby National Harbor, which features hotels, dining and shopping.

The project’s developer, the Peterson Cos., has not publicly expressed interest in a casino but has retained a top lobbyist in Annapolis to monitor the issue. In a statement Friday, the company said it “has consistently deferred to the elected leadership of the county on issues of public policy such as gaming.”

Miller said the bill being drafted would leave it to a state commission to pick the best Prince George’s site.

Miller said he does not plan to personally sponsor the legislation. He said it might be introduced in the Senate by the Prince George’s County delegation, of which he is a member because his legislative district includes part of the county.

Both a new slots site and table games would require a statewide vote after passage by the General Assembly.

Under current law, casino operators in Maryland may keep 33 percent of proceeds, one of the lowest shares in the nation. Miller said he would like to see that percentage increased but would not say how high. Others familiar with the bill suggested the operator proceeds could be about 40 percent.

A higher share would allow operators to invest more money in their facilities, making them more attractive to gamblers and ultimately generating more revenue for the state, Miller said.

He also suggested allowing casino operators to keep all proceeds from table games, which have been added in recent years to 18 facilities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.

Table games typically do not generate as much money for operators as slots because they require more personnel, including dealers and additional security. But casinos covet such games, because they bring in more customers.

Surrounding states keep a relatively small portion of proceeds from table games compared to slots.

Miller also said a portion of proceeds would be earmarked for a new Prince George’s hospital system, an idea he has floated before.

“There will be revenue earmarked for a hospital system, not by choice, but I think it is the only possible way for [the hospital] to have any viability,” he said.

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