In the two 5 to 4 votes, the council tabled the ban and asked state lawmakers to effectively put the question of slots in Prince George’s to the voters of Maryland. A referendum could occur as soon as November 2012.
The move allowed the five council members who voted to table the bill to avoid taking a firm position on slots. The four who wanted a vote on the ban had made clear their opposition to slots, saying the gambling machines are a poor choice for a county trying to rebrand itself as a more upscale community and attract high-end businesses and new jobs.
Now, the issue shifts back to Annapolis, where it was seen as likely to come up in next year’s General Assembly session.
“We are not saying that we want to have slots in our back yard,” said council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), who had abstained in a committee vote on the ban and joined those voting to table the bill. “It needs to be decided by the people of Prince George’s County.”
But there are risks. If the General Assembly calls for a referendum, the Maryland Constitution stipulates that it would be voted on by all the voters in the state, not just those in Prince George’s. It would take a constitutional amendment for the county alone to be able to decide whether it wants slots.
And if slots in Prince George’s were approved by a referendum, the council would still have a chance to examine the proposal under its zoning authority.
Penn National Gaming, which recently reopened Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, has made it clear it wants slots at the harness racing track. And Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has said that Prince George’s has few options to pay for its pressing needs, such as a new hospital, other than by legalizing slots.
Three years ago, when Maryland voters approved five sites for slots, a majority of county voters favored the gambling machines. But the question of approving slots for a site in Prince George’s was not on the ballot.
Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), who proposed the ban on slots, said he wanted to launch a preemptive strike that would push the county to look for other types of economic development and send a message throughout the state that Prince George’s does not want slots.
“We do not see our surrounding jurisdictions going towards slots,” he said. “We have sought office tenants, transit-oriented development and [federal] tenants. That is our economic future.
“I don’t see slots growing the economic pie.”
Olson’s comments capped hours of often emotional testimony about the perceived evils of gambling and the urgent need for the county to find new sources of revenue as it faces a projected shortfall of millions of dollars.