Prince George’s lawmaker to introduce casino bill

February 3, 2012

A leading state senator from Prince George’s County plans to introduce legislation Monday that would allow a casino, featuring slot machines and Las Vegas-style table games, to be built in the county if state and local voters approve.

The bill, which Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D) said he will sponsor, has been in the works for weeks and has the support of the Senate president. It would also allow table games at Maryland’s five previously authorized slots venues and would increase the share of proceeds that all casino operators may keep.

In addition to generating revenue for state education programs, a Prince George’s facility could yield $40 million a year for the county, some of which would be earmarked for a promised new hospital system, said Peters, who is chairman of the county’s Senate delegation in Annapolis.

The prospect of a gambling venue in Prince George’s has drawn opposition from the owner of a casino expected to open this summer in neighboring Anne Arundel County, as well as from Prince George’s ministers and others, who argue it would breed social ills and hurt the county’s image.

Those concerns are expected to grow louder after Monday’s introduction of the bill, which would invite bids for a casino in a small swath of the county that Peters said includes National Harbor, the shopping and dining destination on the Potomac, and Rosecroft Raceway, the recently reopened horse track in Fort Washington.

In an interview Friday, Peters, who has voted against slots legislation in the past, said he decided to support the new measure to give Prince George’s voters a chance to decide whether to embrace a new casino as a revenue source.

Under law, a statewide vote is required to authorize a new location. Peters’s bill includes a provision that would also require a majority vote from the host county. Prince George’s leaders could use zoning powers to halt a venue, he said.

“There really are three levels of protection for the county,” Peters said. “It’s my role to put this question to the people and let them decide whether they want to move forward with this.”

A Washington Post poll published this week found a majority of voters statewide favor a Prince George’s casino, with most county residents tilting in favor.

The legislation’s chances during the 90-day session appear better in the Senate, where supporters include President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), than in the House of Delegates, where members from Prince George’s remain divided on the issue.

In a recent interview, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he sees several “hurdles” in his chamber, including opposition from operators of previously authorized casinos, whose market shares could be threatened by the new competition.

In a bid to address that concern, the bill would increase the share of proceeds that all casinos may retain from 33 percent to 40 percent. In addition, casinos would be allowed to keep all proceeds from newly authorized table games, including blackjack and roulette.

Echoing other lawmakers, Peters said Friday that the bill’s fate in the House could be strongly influenced by the role Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) decides to play.

Baker, a former delegate, has asked lawmakers from his county to “keep an open mind” but has not publicly signaled whether he will support the legislation. His office said it would not comment until after the bill is formally introduced.

“This bill will not pass unless the county executive works with the Prince George’s House delegation and Speaker Busch for passage,” Peters said.

In 2007, when the General Assembly crafted Maryland’s slots program, Prince George’s lawmakers declined overtures to host a casino. Some are rethinking their opposition in light of the country’s continuing revenue challenges.

In an interview Friday, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said revisiting the legislation is not a priority for him. “I think it’s a bit of a distraction from the other pressing work we need to do,” he said.

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