Leopold: Sixth casino would be a breach of faith

When the General Assembly considered video lottery facility legislation in the special session of 2007, a defined area of Anne Arundel County was included as one of five designated sites. In fact, it was included as the site allocated the greatest number of slot machines. This meant it was the site that would generate the greatest revenue for the state education trust fund.

Anne Arundel County was willing to accommodate the largest site and respond to the constitutional provision requiring compliance with local zoning laws. At the request of local officials there,Prince George's Countywas not included in the five proposed casino sites. A Senate amendment to provide for a site in that county was specifically rejected.

The Anne Arundel County administration then began a year-long process, allocating the time and energies of staff from the departments of planning and zoning, inspections and permits and public works, in drafting and enacting zoning legislation that took into account the needs of this state-authorized facility as well as the concerns of the neighbors and citizens of Anne Arundel County.

The County Council spent nine months of public hearings in the ultimate passage of the zoning bill.

All this was done in accordance with the rules set by the state.

The zoning legislation was then subjected to a court contest and ultimately to a referendum in the general election of 2010. The county elections board spent staff time verifying the petitions submitted in support of that referendum, and the voters of the county overwhelming approved the zoning bill.

All this was done in accordance with the rules set by the state.

Anne Arundel County, along with considerable time and effort from the State Highway Administration, then went about the formidable task of approving the plans and permits for this $500 million building. We ensured that all the rules were followed in the construction of this facility.

I would add that Maryland Live did not seek one variance from the provisions of our zoning or permit laws during the construction of the building. Maryland Live followed all the rules imposed by our zoning and permit laws without exception.

Five sessions of the General Assembly, not including the special session on congressional redistricting, have passed since Maryland approved slots without the state moving to change the rules and market areas assigned to the five approved sites.

A general election has passed, during which a constitutional amendment or a referendum adding a Prince George's site could have been considered by the voters.

Only now, one week after the opening of the state's largest slots revenue source, are we here discussing adding a sixth site to a marketing plan designed with the overriding goal of raising money to build modern classrooms and educate our children.

Last week, during my time at the opening of Maryland Live, I spoke with dozens of citizens who came from throughout Maryland to this first-class facility.

The Annapolis Capital newspaper quoted Carolyn Bridges-Forte, ofWashington, D.C. — yes, Washington, D.C. — who was first in line nine hours before the doors opened. The story noted that she said she usually travels to Charles Town, West Virginia and Dover, Delaware. "I don't have to go there no more," she said.

Sharon Kimpson of Waldorf said she was anxious to experience opening night at the casino because it was "like making history." Charles and Pat Anderson of Upper Marlboro said "It's like Atlantic City right here in Maryland."

Less than a month after the General Assembly raised the income tax rates for couples making $150,000 or more, the work group is discussing how to lower the tax rates on casino operators and lower the amount of money their casinos contribute to the education trust fund. I am at a loss to understand why we are having this discussion now.

At the group's first meeting, it heard from Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation President Bob Hannon. He explained the tax increment financing district our county created, with $28 million of taxpayer funding, to build our tax base and generate revenues at Arundel Mills. He noted the real danger to our plans for that TIF district if the expected enhanced investment based on a robust market at Maryland Live doesn't pan out.

In our continuing efforts to promote economic development within the framework of our zoning and permit laws, the one thing we hear over and over again from those who seek to invest in our county is the simple request: "Tell us what the rules are and then don't change the rules on us after we invest."

As public servants, we all should be responsive to our citizens who believe that fairness in our tax laws is a foundation of credibility in government. Raising tax rates for couples making $150,000 (which I might add in Anne Arundel County amounts to an experienced teacher married to an experienced police officer) while lowering them for casino operators not only sends the wrong message to our constituents, it poses the real danger of lowering the revenues for our education trust fund.

I strongly urged the work group to recommend against changing the rules, disrupting our marketing plan, losing trust with our constituents, and threatening our state's image in the minds of investors around the country by adding a sixth site to the state's video lottery facility law.

John Leopold, a Republican, is Anne Arundel County executive.