O’Malley proposes mid-2016 debut of Pr. George’s casino

August 7, 2012

A Las Vegas-style casino could rise in Prince George’s County by mid-2016 at National Harbor or Rosecroft Raceway under legislation Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office proposed Tuesday night.

The proposal, which O’Malley (D) plans to introduce at the start of a special session Thursday, calls for a public vote in November on the new Prince George’s location as well as adding table games, such as blackjack and roulette, to Maryland’s slots casinos. Such games could start in those Maryland facilities by early next year.

The plan represents Maryland’s largest gambling expansion since 2008, when voters authorized slots at five locations in the state after a bitter legislative battle.

O’Malley’s bill attempts to compensate existing casino owners for the new competition in Prince George’s by bumping up their share of revenue and by turning Maryland’s facilities into 24-hour operations. The bill, which was posted on the Internet late Tuesday night, also bans political donations from gambling companies.

It’s unclear whether the governor has the votes needed to get his proposal approved. Similar legislation died in the House of Delegates during this year’s regular legislative session, and the House again balked at a gambling expansion plan drafted this spring by a group O’Malley convened.

Joseph C. Bryce, O’Malley’s chief legislative officer, told reporters Tuesday that his office has responded to delegates’ concerns and made the case for the plan, which he said could net the state more than $200 million a year once it is fully implemented.

“We’ve just kind of rolled up our sleeves and spent a lot of time trying to be responsive to whatever people are concerned about,” Bryce said. “We think it’s a good product, and we think at the end of the day, people will see that.”

Senate leaders have said they are confident that the plan will pass in their chamber by Friday.

Aides to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has been cool to previous proposals, said Tuesday that he believes the new bill can pass in a session expected to stretch into early next week.

“The work of the House is not done,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to provide input throughout the special session in order to put the best product possible before the voters in November.”

Busch cited several provisions in O’Malley’s bill that he considers priorities, including one that would not only require a majority vote statewide but also one in Prince George’s for a casino to move forward there.

House Republican leaders have vowed to oppose the bill, which they said should wait until next year’s regular legislative session for consideration.

The most vocal opponent remains the owner of the state’s largest casino, Maryland Live!, which opened in June at Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County.

The Cordish Cos. says that a Prince George’s venue would unfairly cut into its market in the Washington region and that the state cannot sustain another “mega-casino.”

Maryland Live! will have 4,750 slot machines by this fall, making it among the largest casinos in the nation by that measure.

To address Cordish’s concern, O’Malley’s plan would allow both Cordish and Caesars Entertainment, which plans to open a 3,750-machine casino in Baltimore in 2014, to keep an additional 5 percent of slots revenue.

Most Maryland operators now retain 33 percent. The additional amount would have to be spent on marketing, advertising and capital improvements at the two casinos.

Those two venues would also be able to appeal to a newly formed gambling commission for additional relief.

Cordish officials did not immediately respond for comment Tuesday night.

O’Malley’s bill would also permanently bump up the share for operators at Maryland’s two smallest casinos — one operating with 800 slot machines near Ocean City, the other planned for Western Maryland and having 500 machines. The move would acknowledge the challenges they face in smaller markets, O’Malley aides said.

The Prince George’s facility would be allowed to have up to 3,000 slot machines and as many table games as the operator wants.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has championed National Harbor as a site, saying that the 300-acre mini-city on the Potomac River is ideally positioned to attract gamblers from the District and Virginia as well as tourists from around the world.

O’Malley’s bill, however, would invite bids from a swath of the county that also includes Rosecroft, the once-shuttered harness track in Fort Washington that reopened last year under the ownership of Penn National Gaming. Penn National owns a 1,500-machine casino in Cecil County, in the northeastern corner of Maryland.

Bryce said O’Malley’s goal was to create “a competitive process” for a license in Prince George’s, where delegates remain divided over expanding gambling.

The bill would also transfer responsibility for procuring slot machines at the state’s larger casinos. Maryland is one of only a few states that currently buys or leases machines for private casino operators, a practice that has proved far more expensive than projected.

One provision that won’t be included in O’Malley’s plan would have allowed gambling over the Internet.

The possibility of legalizing online gambling — backed by the owners of Maryland Live! — was briefly mentioned in a memo Busch sent to his members last week.

Aides to Busch played down the importance of the idea, which they said was discussed but never fleshed out.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Busch told reporters earlier Tuesday.

Members of the Senate have been cool to the issue; O’Malley has been noncommittal.

Cordish suggested the concept in a list, distributed to lawmakers, of provisions it would like to see in a bill if one goes forward.

Under Cordish’s proposal, only licensed casinos in Maryland would be allowed to offer gambling over the Internet, creating a new stream of revenue that would partly compensate for the introduction of new competition in Prince George’s.

Only one state, Delaware, has legalized Internet gaming.

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