- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

A D.C. Superior Court judge will decide today whether backers of an initiative that proposes building a $500 million gambling and entertainment complex along New York Avenue in Northeast can begin collecting signatures in an effort to put the proposal before voters.

Judge James E. Boasberg said after a full day of arguments yesterday that he would decide at 11 a.m. today whether the initiative can go forward, whether it is illegal or whether changes need to be made to the language that would appear on petitions.

“Obviously, there are many issues raised, and I would like to have a great deal of time to think about it because they are complicated and involved,” Judge Boasberg said. “But we don’t have a great deal of time.”

Supporters of the District of Columbia Lottery Expansion Initiative want to seek voter approval for a 14-acre complex with 3,500 video-lottery terminals on New York Avenue NE, between Montana Avenue and Bladensburg Road. Called the Capital Horizon Entertainment Complex, the project also would include a 600- to 800-room hotel, a conference center, a bowling alley, a movie theater and retail shops.

Judge Boasberg said he would decide quickly because supporters of the initiative face a July 6 deadline to collect signatures from 17,500 people, or 5 percent of the city’s registered voters. According to D.C. law, petitions cannot be distributed until a court challenge is resolved.

John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and the lawyer representing the group supporting the initiative, said after yesterday’s hearing that the chances were about “50-50” that the judge would rule in favor of the slots proponents.

If so, he said petitions could be certified and distributed as soon as today after a special meeting of the board of elections and that he was confident supporters could collect the 17,500 signatures in the seven days before the deadline.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t.”

Mr. Ray said the effort will be doomed if the judge rules that the initiative should not be on the ballot.

“If he says that, we’re no longer in the batter’s box,” Mr. Ray said.

Dorothy Brizill, who runs the D.C. government watchdog Web site, DCWatch, argued on behalf of fellow plaintiffs Regina James, a Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner, and the Rev. David Argo, a United Methodist Church pastor, that the initiative should not be on the ballot.

Among her arguments, Mrs. Brizill said that the title and short summary of the initiative, which will be printed on petition forms, are misleading because they define the machines as “video lottery terminals” instead of “slot machines.”

She said that initiatives are governed by the same rules as City Council bills and that this initiative was illegal because it presents “special-interest legislation” and awards a contract to one group of developers. Introducing special-interest legislation and awarding contracts are beyond council authority.

Mr. Ray, who argued as a third-party intervenor, said that the initiative was legal because it only proposed the location for the complex and did not designate who would receive a license.

Mrs. Brizill also said that public notification of the initiative was inadequate because it was printed in two “supplemental” editions to the D.C. Register, one of which was created and paid for by a backer of the initiative.

But Terri Stroud, a staff lawyer with the board of elections, said public notification was not necessary in the privately produced edition of the register and that the second supplement was authorized by the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, which prints the register.

After the hearing, Mrs. Brizill said she could not predict how the judge would rule today.

“This is such an unusual circumstance, and they have been given the benefit of the doubt so many times. I just can’t predict,” she said.

Supporters have estimated the complex would generate $765 million annually. Under the proposal, 25 percent of the profits, or about $190 million, from the video-lottery terminals would be earmarked for the District.

Mrs. Brizill also said a recommendation in the initiative that the city’s revenues be used to improve public schools and to assist senior citizens in obtaining prescription drugs could also be deemed misleading since proponents of an initiative have no authority to allocate funds.

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