O'Malley, Ehrlich take sides in Arundel Mills mall slots ballot measure

Horse breeders are being lured away from Maryland to states such as Pennsylvania, where slots revenue offers financial incentives to the struggling industry.
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Maryland's two leading candidates for governor are taking opposite sides in a pitched battle over one of the state's most divisive issues: slot machine gambling.

Thanks to a court ruling this week, voters in Anne Arundel County will get a say in the fall over the future of Maryland's largest planned casino, a 4,750-machine facility outside the food court at Arundel Mills mall.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whose law firm did communications work last year for the casino's developer, said in an interview that he plans to support a November ballot measure to incorporate high-end dining and live entertainment, as well as gambling, at the site.

Ehrlich, who fought unsuccessfully as governor to bring slots to Maryland, said Baltimore-based developer Cordish Cos. has made "a good case" for the merits of its project. As an Anne Arundel resident he will have the opportunity to vote on the ballot measure, which seeks to repeal a county zoning law needed for the casino to move forward.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said his sympathies lie with homeowners near the mall, who have argued that the casino will bring more traffic and crime to the area.

"I can certainly understand why the people of northern Anne Arundel County would prefer not to have a slots emporium at a mall in a residential area," O'Malley said in an interview. "If I lived there, I'd rather see it at a racetrack."

He said the state is prepared to move forward with its fledgling slots program whichever way Anne Arundel voters go.

Interested parties on both sides are expected to pour millions of dollars into the ballot measure between now and November.

Homeowners opposed to the casino have teamed with the deep-pocketed Maryland Jockey Club, which operates nearby Laurel Park racetrack. The Jockey Club provided the financial backing for a successful petition drive to put the zoning measure on the ballot.

The club's hope is that sinking the mall casino will allow it to win the only slots license the state plans to issue in Anne Arundel.

A county judge ruled last month that the December zoning decision by the Anne Arundel County Council should not be subject to second-guessing by voters. That opinion was overturned this week by Maryland's highest court, which gave its blessing for the countywide referendum to proceed.

The ballot measure could have implications for the governor's race, although there is wide disagreement over how significant those will be.

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