A Maryland Senate committee voted 10 to 2 Friday to advance a controversial bill that would authorize a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County and add several additional sweeteners for the proposed host jurisdiction.
The measure, which would also allow Las Vegas-style table games at Maryland’s five previously authorized slots venues, is expected to come to a vote in the full Senate in coming days. The bill faces longer odds in the House of Delegates in the closing weeks of the annual legislative session.
Supporters argue that a sixth gambling venue — particularly one well positioned to draw gamblers from Virginia and the District — would significantly boost revenue for Maryland and Prince George’s. Opponents have questioned whether Maryland should expand its fledgling gambling program before all five sites authorized by voters in 2008 are open.
The bill has drawn vocal opposition from the developers of a planned Anne Arundel County casino, which is expected to open in June and stands to lose significant market share. And several religious and community groups in Prince George’s are opposed.
“We’ve tried to satisfy as many people as we can with the bill,” Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), the lead sponsor of the bill, said after the committee vote. “We have to make our case on the floor in the next couple days and get it out of the Senate.”
Peters said he was particularly pleased with an amendment adopted Friday that he said guarantees a Prince George’s casino would not move forward without the blessing of voters in his county. A previous attempt to do that was scuttled by state lawyers.
In addition to boosting state education revenue, it is estimated by legislative analysts that a Prince George’s casino would generate about $25 million a year in gambling proceeds for the county.
The amended bill also seeks to resolve a long-standing dispute between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties over a state education-aid formula that Prince George’s contends unfairly favors wealthier counties. The provision tucked into the gambling bill would yield another $13 million a year for Prince George’s while maintaining aid levels for Montgomery and other high-wealth counties.
The fate of the bill could be determined in part by how hard Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) pushes for its passage.
Baker, a former state delegate, has lobbied for a billion-dollar casino at National Harbor, the 300-acre mixed-use development on the banks of the Potomac River.
The bill adopted by the Senate committee does not guarantee that location but instead invites bids for sites on a swath of western Prince George’s that includes both National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway, the recently reopened horse track in Fort Washington.
The bill also boosts the share of slots proceeds that casino operators may keep — but not by as much as Baker has suggested would be necessary to finance the kind of “high-end” casino he envisions.
In a statement, Baker called the amended Senate bill “a step in the right direction” and said “we look forward to working with the House of Delegates on other elements of our proposal as the bill moves through the process.”
House leaders have been waiting to see what emerges from the Senate. Lawmakers and aides said Friday that the views of Baker and delegates from Prince George’s — who have been divided on the issue — will be particularly important.
One of the two opposing votes Friday came from Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), whose legislative district includes Maryland Live!, the casino scheduled to open in June at Arundel Mills mall.
DeGrange said he liked several provisions in the bill but questioned whether a Prince George’s casino was fair to Maryland Live!
“I have a facility in my district that hasn’t even opened yet,” DeGrange said.
Joe Weinberg, president of the Cordish Cos., the casino owner, said last week that he considers it “insane” to build another “mega-casino” in the region.
With a planned 4,750 slot machines, Cordish’s casino would be the state’s largest and among the largest of its kind in the country. Under the Senate bill, a Prince George’s casino would be allowed 4,750 machines as well.
In an attempt to compensate Cordish and other Maryland casino owners, the bill raises the share of slots proceeds that operators may keep to 40 percent from the current 33 percent.
Under the Sente bill, owners would also be able to keep the majority of revenue generated by table games. As the bill was originally written, operators would have kept all table games revenue. An amendment adopted Friday steers 10 percent of proceeds to host counties.
Peters pointed out that the provision would net Prince George’s another $10 million.