Slots Standoff

Our View: Recent State Budget Cuts Are A Reminder That Slots Are Needed, But Anne Arundel Council's Failure To Authorize Them Threatens A Key Location

August 30, 2009

Last week's latest round of budget cuts, a hefty $454 million in reductions that included layoffs, furloughs, and hits to community colleges, health departments, road repair, public safety and local aid, has heightened the urgency to bring slot machines to Maryland as voters approved overwhelmingly last year.

The national economic recession is shrinking state and local government faster - and perhaps more painfully - than expected. The potential hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue generated by slot machines would go a long way toward alleviating that discomfort.

But the centerpiece of Maryland's slot machine effort - the largest and most ambitious project proposed - is threatened by a continuing stalemate in the Anne Arundel County Council. Legislation that would allow slots in that county and address such concerns as traffic and crime has yet to attract the four votes necessary to win majority approval from the seven-member board.

As a result, developer David Cordish's proposal to create a billion-dollar hotel and entertainment complex with 4,750 slot machines at Arundel Mills Mall faces a peculiar kind of licensing Catch-22: The state commission charged with deciding whether to license the project may choose not to act until the county approves zoning, and the county may not be willing to pass such legislation until the state awards the license.

One can certainly understand if the state "facility location commission" is reluctant to act before the county. After all, certain local land use decision could have an impact on the project's feasibility. The developer might, for instance, have to incur substantially greater costs depending on what the county requires.

The council's failure to act, however, appears to be based more on political calculation. If the state awards a license first, it may give cover to certain reluctant council members who can say they voted in favor merely to comply with the state's decision.

That's not a particularly compelling argument, and weak-kneed council members ought to be held accountable. The slots referendum was approved by Anne Arundel voters by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin, and the county would stand to earn $30 million in much-need tax revenue annually from the project.

Up or down, the time for council action is now. The state commission is supposed to make a decision on the Arundel Mills proposal this fall but could choose to postpone if the council fails to pass the bills in question in the coming weeks.

County Executive John R. Leopold and Mr. Cordish are hoping the reverse can take place - that the license will be awarded in September and the council will then take action. But that assumes the commission will find it has adequate information to make that decision, an assumption that its chairman, Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry, warns should not be made.

And here's another reason for urgency: Time is money. While the Arundel Mills project is not expected to be completed until 2011 at the earliest, it's entirely possible for a temporary location to be created in the interim and slot machines to be available to the public as early as next Memorial Day weekend.

Temporary slots facilities at Arundel Mills and other smaller sites such as Ocean Downs or Perryville could go a long way toward helping the state solve a projected billion-dollar shortfall in the next fiscal year. That would not only protect public schools (where slots revenue must be spent) but avoid the kind of cuts to local aid that almost always give rise to higher property tax rates. In tax-averse Anne Arundel County, it's hard to believe voters would prefer that alternative.

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