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Maryland Senate approves casino bill

A bill that would allow a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County and add Las Vegas-style table games at Maryland’s five other slots venues was approved Tuesday by the state Senate, providing late-session momentum for the controversial measure.

The 35 to 11 vote sent the legislation to the House of Delegates, where leaders remained noncommittal Tuesday about its prospects. The bill is the largest attempted expansion of gambling in Maryland since voters approved the state’s slots program in 2008.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said his chamber will look at the potential revenue for the state and the impact a new casino might have on existing operators. And he said the views of Prince George’s delegates would factor heavily during the remaining two weeks of the 90-day session.

“Certainly it’s imperative that a majority of the Prince George’s delegation be supportive of any legislation that puts a location in their county,” Busch said.

In the Senate, the measure was backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who touted the lopsided vote on “a very good bill.”

“We have a revenue shortage in the state, and people much prefer this to tax increases,” said Miller, whose legislative district includes a part of Prince George’s.

The bill — which is expected to generate tens of millions of additional dollars in state and county tax revenue — would seek competitive bids for a facility in a western swath of Prince George’s. The territory includes both National Harbor, the 300-acre mixed-use development on the banks of the Potomac River; and Rosecroft Raceway, the recently reopened harness racetrack in Fort Washington.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has championed his vision of a billion-dollar “high-end” casino at National Harbor as the best way to generate jobs and draw gamblers from the District and Northern Virginia.

Two of the eight Prince George’s senators voted against the measure Tuesday.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D), whose district includes both potential locations, has complained that Baker’s advocacy for National Harbor has skewed the process.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D) said he thinks the county should focus its economic development efforts elsewhere.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be bringing in research and technology as economic engines in the county, not gambling,” Pinsky said.

Several House members from Prince George’s share that view, and on Tuesday, the delegation’s leader, Melony G. Griffith (D), said state lawmakers from her county remain “virtually split” on the prospect of a Prince George’s casino.

“I would not say it’s impossible that a bill moves,” Griffith said. “But it would be more than a heavy lift for proponents, of which I am not one, and the clock is ticking.”

Under Maryland law, any major gambling expansion requires a statewide vote. The bill that passed the Senate would also prevent a casino from coming to Prince George’s if a majority of county voters do not support the idea in the statewide referendum.

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the bill, cited that safeguard as essential to his support. He has also stressed that the Prince George’s County Council, through its zoning power, would have effective veto power over a casino.

The owner of Maryland Live!, a slots facility scheduled to open in June in neighboring Anne Arundel County, has staunchly opposed a Prince George’s casino, arguing that it would severely cut into Maryland Live!’s market share. With a planned 4,750 slot machines, Maryland Live! is envisioned as the state’s largest casino and one of the largest of its kind in the country.

Four of the “nay” votes Tuesday came from senators — two Democrats and two Republicans — who represent portions of Anne Arundel.

In an attempt to offset potential losses at previously approved sites, the Senate bill increases the share of slots proceeds that casino operators would keep to 40 percent, from 33 percent, and it allows them to keep 90 percent of proceeds from table games.

The bill also shifts ownership responsibility for slot machines from the state to casino owners in 2013. At that point, the share of proceeds kept by owners would rise an additional eight percentage points.

When lawmakers launched Maryland’s slots program in 2007, they reasoned that state control of the machines would provide more security. But legislative analysts now play down the security benefit and concede that the cost has far exceeded their initial estimates.

The Senate bill also includes a sweetener for Prince George’s lawmakers. It attempts to resolve a long-running dispute over a wealth formula for education funding that has divided Prince George’s and Montgomery lawmakers. A provision in the gambling bill would result in Prince George’s getting an additional $13 million a year while Montgomery would not lose any funding.

Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), who chairs a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over gambling issues, said there are many “moving parts” in the debate. Among them: a separate bill pending in the House that would allow table games at the five previously authorized casinos and not add a Prince George’s location.

“We’re going to look at this carefully, and we’ll see how many of these moving parts move,” Turner said.

John Wagner is a political reporter covering the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

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