P.G. County could prove key to casino referendum feud

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ANNAPOLIS — The fight to defeat this fall’s referendum on table games and casino expansion could start in Prince George’s County, where socially conservative groups and some lawmakers argue a county casino will hurt local residents and benefit only wealthy developers.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the bill into law Wednesday that will allow the referendum this November, but many county activists say there is widespread opposition from voters who have felt left out of the legislative process. Their fracture from Democratic leaders in the decidedly blue county could play a major factor in the gambling referendum, as well as in a statewide vote this fall on gay marriage.

“I’ve talked to quite a number of my colleagues in the faith community and we are not going to be on the sidelines,” said the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, pastor at Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie. “Gambling is a poor way to generate revenue on the backs of people who have already been marginalized.”

After working all night Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday, the General Assembly gave its final approval to allow the referendum on expanding gambling to a sixth casino in Prince George’s County and table games in all casinos statewide. Supporters fought for the legislation in the fiercely divided House of Delegates, where it passed after 11 p.m. Tuesday with the minimum number of votes needed for approval.

A Prince George’s casino could open no earlier than July 2016, and its location — expected to be either National Harbor or Rosecroft Raceway — would be chosen by a commission of gubernatorial appointees.

By 2017, state analysts estimate expanded gambling would bring $525 million a year in additional revenue to casino owners, $175 million to state education and $30 million to local governments.

“I feel good about where we are going,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat. “It will bring in jobs and revenues for people in Prince George’s County and for the state, and that’s what I think people will look at in the end.”

While a statewide “yes” vote is needed to legalize table games, things aren’t so simple for a Prince George’s casino.

Nonbinding language in the gambling bill strongly discourages the state from awarding a Prince George’s license unless it wins approval of a countywide majority of voters. Allowing Prince George’s voters to officially decide state action on a sixth casino would have violated the state constitution, according to the attorney general’s office.

State officials say that if statewide voters approve the referendum but Prince George’s voters reject it, the other provisions of the bill signed Wednesday —including table games at the state’s other casinos and tax relief for operators — will go into effect.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has said his administration will abide by the votes of county residents, but some gambling opponents worry proposals for a Prince George’s casino will resurface even if residents vote it down this year.

The gambling bill was approved with urging from Mr. Baker, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, and 15 of the county’s 23 House members. This is a stark departure from 2007, when county officials asked for Prince George’s to be excluded from a bill that allowed casinos in five other jurisdictions.

While opinions have changed somewhat, some lawmakers have lingering concerns about possible crime and gambling addiction that a casino could bring.

“The real costs of gambling are hidden. Every dollar that they take in comes from out of people’s pockets,” said Delegate Doyle L. Niemann, Prince George’s Democrat. “People don’t understand that, and nobody is going to be out there to explain that.”

If the referendum passes, changes could come to the state’s other casinos almost immediately. The state’s existing casinos could start the process to get table games as soon as a referendum passes. The governor’s office says the first table games could pop up early next year.

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