A measure that would pave the way for a casino in Prince George's County picked up support Friday from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, even as some city lawmakers raised concerns that it would take money away from the gambling venue planned near M&T Bank Stadium.
With just over a week left in the General Assembly session, the debate about whether to expand gambling has moved over to the House of Delegates — the chamber that has been hesitant to support casinos.
The Senate has passed a bill that would not only authorize a sixth casino in Maryland but allow table games in addition to slot machines at all of the state's gambling parlors. The bill's movement to the House has been accompanied by a new burst of lobbying, though some lawmakers question whether the chamber has the stamina for another difficult debate. Already on deck for next week is the state budget and proposals to increase income taxes.
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"We'll make a good-faith effort with the bill," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who added that he's waiting to hear what most Prince George's County delegates want.
In 2007, when the legislature established a gambling program with five casinos, Prince George's opted to stay out. Now there's a new county executive who wants a casino.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III envisions a casino on the banks of the Potomac River in the National Harbor development. During a county delegation meeting in Annapolis on Friday, Baker sat in the audience, but piped up a few times from his seat to remind lawmakers about the estimated $47 million in annual revenue that could come to the county if the bill passes.
Del. Melony G. Griffith, who chairs the county delegation, takes a different view. "The county needs revenue, I understand that," she said. "I'm not sure that this is the best way to get us where we need to be."
She said she's unsure about how the delegation will vote. "I think there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of questions unanswered," she said.
Another new dynamic could be House Republicans, who say they are looking very closely at the measure this year. Support from the 43-member GOP caucus could tip the scale in favor of the gambling bill. The legislation needs 85 of 141 votes in the House to pass.
"I think the position of the caucus will be very relevant," said Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House Republican leader. He added that it is "premature" to say how his members will vote. In 2007, the gambling bill squeaked through the House with exactly the number of votes needed — just five of them Republicans.
The GOP caucus has met quietly in recent weeks with key players on both sides of the issue, including officials from National Harbor, gambling firms and community activists.
The Senate-passed gambling bill would allow a casino with 4,750 slot machines in Prince George's County, expanding the total number of video lottery machines in the state to 19,750. Only two of the five casinos allowed by a 2008 gambling referendum have opened their doors — in Perryville and at Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore. The other locations are Baltimore, the Rocky Gap resort in Western Maryland and Arundel Mills.
A new Prince George's casino would be the same size as the planned facility at Arundel Mills, 33 miles to the north. It would be slightly larger than the one planned for Baltimore.
To mitigate loss of business to the existing and planned casinos, the bill would cut the state tax rate by 7 percentage points to 60 percent of slots revenues and allow table games like poker and blackjack. Ten percent of table game revenues would go to the casino's host county.
The bill passed, 35-11, in the Senate this week, with six of eight Prince George's County senators supporting it. Opposing were Sen. Paul G. Pinsky and Sen. C. Anthony Muse, whose district includes National Harbor. All six of Baltimore's senators supported it.
Should the bill clear the House, the legislation would put the question to voters on November's ballot.
Rawlings-Blake said in a letter sent Friday to House leaders that her support is based on a new city analysis that shows Baltimore stands to gain an additional $10 million a year if the legislation passes, mostly from the local share of the tax on table games.
The mayor said she initially thought a sixth site in Prince George's would "cannibalize" the planned Baltimore casino. But now she is "convinced" that supporting the Senate legislation with its extra local revenue "is an appropriate position for the city," she wrote.
Caesars, the sole casino company that is bidding in Baltimore, agrees. Caesars CEO Gary Loveman said in an interview that the sweeteners in the bill "more than offset the loss of business."
Some Baltimore legislators are not so sure — with several expressing concern that the state is going to be saturated with gambling.
"I don't see how they all survive," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a city Democrat. "Somebody is not going to make it. I'm just concerned about the impact to Baltimore. I'm concerned that we don't get the clientele."
And the bill still faces strong opposition from the Cordish Cos., developer of the Arundel Mills casino. Joe Weinberg, president of the company's gaming and resorts division, argues that the market can't handle a third large venue for gaming.
"The addition of another mega-casino in this corridor would be unwise," Weinberg said in an e-mail. "These facilities are not Starbucks that can be placed on every street corner."
He said a more "rational approach" would be to add table games to the five existing casinos, a position that Rawlings-Blake has long supported. "The mayor's original gut was absolutely correct," Weinberg said.