The Prince George’s County Council backed away Tuesday from an effort to ban slot machine gambling in the county.
In a separate vote, the council urged state lawmakers to pass legislation designating a proposed slots site in Prince George’s and authorizing a statewide referendum on whether to permit gambling at that site.
In the two 5 to 4 votes, the council tabled the ban and asked state lawmakers to effectively put the question of slots in Prince George’s to the voters of Maryland. A referendum could occur as soon as November 2012.
The move allowed the five council members who voted to table the bill to avoid taking a firm position on slots. The four who wanted a vote on the ban had made clear their opposition to slots, saying the gambling machines are a poor choice for a county trying to rebrand itself as a more upscale community and attract high-end businesses and new jobs.
Now, the issue shifts back to Annapolis, where it was seen as likely to come up in next year’s General Assembly session.
“We are not saying that we want to have slots in our back yard,” said council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), who had abstained in a committee vote on the ban and joined those voting to table the bill. “It needs to be decided by the people of Prince George’s County.”
But there are risks. If the General Assembly calls for a referendum, the Maryland Constitution stipulates that it would be voted on by all the voters in the state, not just those in Prince George’s. It would take a constitutional amendment for the county alone to be able to decide whether it wants slots.
And if slots in Prince George’s were approved by a referendum, the council would still have a chance to examine the proposal under its zoning authority.
Penn National Gaming, which recently reopened Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, has made it clear it wants slots at the harness racing track. And Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has said that Prince George’s has few options to pay for its pressing needs, such as a new hospital, other than by legalizing slots.
Three years ago, when Maryland voters approved five sites for slots, a majority of county voters favored the gambling machines. But the question of approving slots for a site in Prince George’s was not on the ballot.
Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), who proposed the ban on slots, said he wanted to launch a preemptive strike that would push the county to look for other types of economic development and send a message throughout the state that Prince George’s does not want slots.
“We do not see our surrounding jurisdictions going towards slots,” he said. “We have sought office tenants, transit-oriented development and [federal] tenants. That is our economic future.
“I don’t see slots growing the economic pie.”
Olson’s comments capped hours of often emotional testimony about the perceived evils of gambling and the urgent need for the county to find new sources of revenue as it faces a projected shortfall of millions of dollars.
Dozens of witnesses for and against slots clogged the council chambers in Upper Marlboro and puzzled over the best formula to create jobs and bring prosperity, and whether slots would help or hinder those efforts.
“It comes down to an economic argument and a moral argument,” said council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel), who co-sponsored Olson’s ban.
Lehman said she found the economic arguments in favor of slots unpersuasive. She cited data showing that in the area around Charleston, W.Va., where there are slots at the racetrack, the unemployment rate is slightly more than 7 percent, about the same as in Prince George’s.
“This is about evil trying to prevail over the highest conscience of man,” said Clarence Dow, an elder at St. Stephen Baptist Church in Temple Hills, a few miles from Rosecroft.
“We should create other alternatives that would say something positive about the future of the county and the intelligence of this council,” said Anthony G. Maclin, pastor at the Sanctuary at Kingdom Square in Capitol Heights.
“I believe that Prince George’s County is better than this . . . we don’t need to do this,” council member Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) said.
Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) also backed Olson’s ban.
Other speakers urged the council to defeat the ban, saying slots could boost the county and offset any potential social costs of gambling addiction. A Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable study several years ago estimated such costs could be higher than what the county might gain from slots.
Council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said the Olson bill is not needed, at least not now. That view is shared by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). Both have opposed slots in the past.
“I believe that this conversation is premature. I don’t like slots, but I like the idea of laying off teachers less,” Franklin said.
“Reasonable, intelligent minds can disagree,” he said. “This is all happening in the backdrop of our dire fiscal outlook in Prince George’s County.”
The motion to table Olson’s ban was introduced by council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), who opposed slots when he was a member of the General Assembly but abstained in a committee vote on Olson’s bill.
Pro-slots forces backing Penn National Gambling’s push to put slots at Rosecroft Raceway commissioned a poll that showed county residents favoring slots in their community; opponents have a poll showing residents are opposed.
Joining Franklin, Patterson and Toles in voting to table the bill were council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) and the council’s chairman, Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie).