January 27, 2012

For more than a decade, gaming proponents have promised Prince George’s County funding for a wide range of social services and other needs, from school modernization and closing budget deficits to revitalizing Maryland’s horse industry. Each time, reason trumped the inflated revenue projections, and our county opted to pursue real economic solutions, rather than giving in to budget gimmicks or extortion from Annapolis. Now, the gaming lobby, industry pals and like-minded legislators are arguing that slots can solve a new problem: the need for a new county hospital .

Here we go again: another false choice that would hurt residents and undermine Prince George’s economic potential. Whether for a hospital or school, slots money is a poor choice for a county that rightly seeks to define itself by family values and a commitment to community and to 21st-century economic development.

The social ills created by gaming are clear. In fact, the potential impact on Maryland is well-documented in a report released in 1995 and again in 2003 by former Maryland attorney general J. Joseph Curran Jr. The report concluded that “crime would rise because of the crime-related problems of compulsive gamblers, the constant exposure of casino workers to substance abuse and other social ills, the pervasive availability of alcohol to casino patrons and the growing problem of teenage gambling addiction.”

Past experience confirms these conclusions. In a study titled “Casinos, Crime, and Community Costs,” David B. Mustard of the University of Georgia and Earl Grinols of Baylor University surveyed 3,165 counties over a 20-year period. They found that, five years after a casino opened, robbery increased on average by 136 percent, aggravated assault by 91 percent, auto theft by 78 percent, burglary by 50 percent, larceny by 38 percent, rape by 21 percent and murder by 12 percent.

Moreover, gaming is suspect as a cornerstone of economic development. To be convinced of this, we need only to observe the unemployment and foreclosure rates in two havens of the industry, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Las Vegas has an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent and a foreclosure rate of 7.4 percent, the highest in the country in 2011. Atlantic City is not far behind, with unemployment and foreclosure rates of 12.4 and 11.7 percent, respectively. That is not something Prince George’s should aspire to. Gaming would tarnish the county as a place to raise a family and start a business, jeopardizing our economic future.

Further, the drive to put slot machines and other games in Prince George’s risks damaging the county’s underlying economic strengths and opportunities. Instead, let us focus like a laser beam on positive and progressive development around the county’s 15 Metro stations. For too long, these economic zones have gone underdeveloped. That is why we and others have prodded the General Services Administration to correct federal leasing disparities and ensure fairness in administrating their leasing practices in the D.C. region. We know this will create jobs, spur development and increase the tax base to generate the revenue the county needs to build a new hospital and invest in schools.

The county also holds a well-deserved AAA bond rating from all major credit rating agencies, a sure sign of strength to investors. The county boasts these advantages and opportunities without the negative influences of gaming. A tough economic climate may make slots appear more viable, but the kind of opportunism this view signals belies the claims put forth by the gaming industry and their allies in Annapolis about how much revenue such gaming would produce and the considerable costs communities would have to shoulder.

The people of Prince George’s face a clear choice: Give in to the false hopes of the gaming industry or pursue viable economic solutions that will ensure our long-term economic competitiveness. There can be no doubt that the county needs and deserves a state-of-the-art hospital system. But we should steadfastly refuse to cave to monied interests and inflated promises. Prince George’s County has so much more to offer.

Donna F. Edwards, a Democrat from Maryland, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Rev. Anthony G. Maclin is president of Collective Empowerment Group, an organization of Prince George’s County religious leaders.