Gambling expansion wins narrow victory

Table games, casino in Prince George's Co. approved

November 07, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

After the most expensive political campaign in Maryland's history, proponents of a plan to expand the reach and variety of casino gambling in Maryland won a narrow victory.

The measure would allow Maryland casinos to offer table games such as blackjack and roulette, and allow a casino to be built in Prince George's County.

Shortly before midnight — even as the final votes were being counted — supporters of the ballot question claimed victory and set off fireworks over National Harbor, the most likely site of that casino.

The question was put on the ballot by legislation backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and passed by the General Assembly in a special session in August. It includes a provision requiring that a majority of Prince George's County residents approve the measure in order for a casino to open there. Returns from that county showed a solid margin in favor of the measure.

But support for the measure was lagging in most of the Baltimore area, with the exception of the city, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was a key backer. Even in Baltimore, the margin between supporters and opponents was narrow.

Two rival casino companies — MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming — poured a total of more than $80 million into the campaign. Overall, the ballot question drew more than $87 million, according to the most recent figures.

MGM, hoping to become the operator of a glittering $800 million "destination resort" casino at National Harbor in Prince George's County, urged voters to clear the way for its plans by approving Question 7. Penn National, seeing National Harbor as a threat to its flagship casino in Charles Town, W.Va., matched MGM nearly dollar for dollar in its bid to defeat the measure.

While the cost of the campaign was enormous — more than double Maryland's most expensive gubernatorial race — the stakes for the two companies were many times greater. Gambling industry experts said that over the long term, a National Harbor casino could cost Penn National hundreds of millions of dollars while MGM could earn billions at National Harbor.

In their ad campaigns, the casino companies cloaked their interests in arguments over what would be best for Maryland. MGM-sponsored ads promised thousands of jobs and about $200 million a year in additional money for education. Penn National's ads charged that the plan was hatched by politicians in a back-room deal with no guarantee that schools would benefit.

Last night, supporters of the measure gathered at National Harbor to watch nervously as the returns trickled in.

At about 10 p.m. former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who led a get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of Question 7, said that "it's a little too early for me to be smiling but I can fake it."

Earlier in the day, current County Executive Rushern Baker warned that failure of the measure could lead to drastic budget cuts and force layoffs of country workers.

Though the gambling expansion was backed heavily by O'Malley and other state Democratic leaders, the votes did not reliably follow partisan lines.

Charles Collier, a Romney voter from North Laurel in Howard County, cast his vote in favor of Question 7. "I am all for expanded gambling because the way I look at it, it's a voluntary tax," he said.

Amy Alee, an Obama voter who lives near the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills, voted no even though she's all for table games. Her concern: tax reductions for casino operators, another provision of the new law.

"I don't think they should get any kind of tax break when we don't," she said.

Maryland made its first venture into big-time casino gambling with the General Assembly's approval in 2007 — ratified by voters the next year — of slot machines at five locations. Three have since opened — at Arundel Mills, Perryville and Ocean Downs.

Two others are in the works, in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland.

At the insistence of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, the General Assembly linked two important changes to that program. Table games would be permitted, but only if legislators backed a sixth casino, at a site in Prince George's County.

With slots already legal, the addition of table games was seen by many lawmakers as a logical step — drawing opposition only from die-hard opponents of gambling. The Prince George's casino, however, was a deeply divisive proposal.

That provision received a boost last year when Baker threw his support behind a casino at National Harbor. Soon after, the developer of that site on the Potomac River enlisted Las Vegas giant MGM as casino operator.

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