Prince George's casino draws skepticism from other Baltimore-area lawmakers

Ben Giles, Washington Examiner

ANNAPOLIS - Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, seeking a referendum on slots to bring a $1 billion casino to National Harbor, says he is confident he has the backing of the county's General Assembly delegation, some of whom gave their first indication of support at a House committee hearing.

But delegates from other jurisdictions have reservations about proposals for a sixth gambling site in Maryland, particularly lawmakers from Baltimore who are wary of the impact the Las Vegas-style casino Baker has proposed would have on a casino in their city.

Citing reports of the state's high expenses for slots and the lack of early returns on revenues, delegates from the Baltimore region questioned the wisdom of approving a sixth casino site -- one that would have the most slot machines in the state -- while also altering the stream of revenue to better favor casino operators, not the state.

"We haven't even implemented our slots venues," said Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County. "At least three locations aren't up and running yet, and we're already trying to alter a bill it took years to get in the first place."

To attract a developer willing to make the $1 billion investment Baker is asking for at National Harbor, his preferred destination for a casino in Prince George's, officials have proposed shifting 7 percent of slots revenues from the state's education trust fund to casino owners. Casino owners would get 40 percent of revenue instead of the current 33 percent.

Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery County, said he was frustrated with language in the bill that cut school funding after slots "[were] sold to the state as a way to pay for education."

As Baker was peppered with questions from Baltimore lawmakers -- who pointed out voters rejected a gambling site in Prince George's in 2008 -- members of the county's delegation came to his defense.

Times are different than they were four years ago, said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George's.

"I don't want my colleagues to think we can't change our minds," she said.

Del. Jolene Ivey, D-Prince George's, said she's willing to vote for the referendum, despite some concerns with the revenue splits in the bill.

Still, the thought of an additional 4,750 slots in the Baltimore-Washington area left some delegates on the House committee skeptical. Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard County, questioned the accuracy of the estimated effect at other casinos and worried revenue losses could be greater than expected.

"How do we get those projections without the Baltimore facility or the Anne Arundel facility opening?" he said.

Lawmakers' doubts have David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Cos. and developer of the state's newest casino at Arundel Mills, expecting Baker's casino proposal won't pass the General Assembly.

"I don't think there's anybody serious who thinks that the ministers in Prince George's want this, the council wants it, or anybody wants it," Cordish said before the hearing.