- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Prince George’s lawmakers testified Wednesday before a Senate committee on a bill to bring slots and table games to the county, including a proposal to put a $1 billion casino at National Harbor.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee the National Harbor plan would improve the already thriving waterfront resort.

Mr. Baker, a Democrat, also said the site would be more attractive and lucrative than the 63-year-old Rosecroft Raceway harness-racing track, which also is being considered.

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“It’s already a regional destination drawing tourists from all over the country,” said Mr. Baker, who also estimated the proposed “high-end” casino would bring $50 million annually to the county.

Opponents of the plan, including state lawmakers, complained the project will take money from residents and has been unfairly moved ahead of the Rosecroft proposal.

The bill, which does not designate a site, would legalize table games at the state’s five other slots sites, provided that voters approve the bill in a referendum.

Maryland now has slots casinos open in Cecil and Worcester counties, with a third scheduled to open this year in Anne Arundel County. Two more sites in Baltimore and Allegany counties are still in the planning stage.

Voters approved the casinos in a 2008 referendum, but many lawmakers are now looking to expand to table games or add an additional site to keep up with neighboring casinos in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Prince George’s officials have warmed to gaming in recent years since widely opposing the 2008 implementation of slots, which critics argued would exacerbate residents’ financial problems by draining their money and moving it into state coffers.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said that National Harbor is an ideal location because most of its visitors come from out of state. He added that building a casino there would create thousands of construction and long-term jobs and that revenue would lessen the state’s tax burden on residents.

Supporters also contend that National Harbor already has the entertainment venues and road infrastructure to attract and accommodate visitors.

“It’s going to be the largest construction job on the East Coast,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat. “It’s an economic boomlet for Prince George’s County.”

Supporters of expanded gambling are moving briskly because additional sites or forms of gambling would have to be approved by a three-fifths majority in the General Assembly and upheld in a statewide referendum.

A successful bill this session would go to the ballot in November. But if lawmakers have to wait until next year, the earliest possible vote would be November 2014.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, Prince George’s Democrat, argued the process is being pushed along too quickly and without adequate planning or input from local residents.

Mr. Muse, whose district includes Oxon Hill, said Mr. Baker chose to support National Harbor without any local input, and argued that choosing the development over Rosecroft would essentially abandon the “struggling and dying” racetrack.

“It gives the appearance of just the kind of good old backroom deal that has plagued Prince George’s County in the past,” he said. “It wasn’t done fairly, it’s not done rightly and if it has to wait a year or two, we’ve survived this long without it.”

Mr. Miller said lawmakers will consider both sites and that he expects the Senate to pass the bill, potentially leading to a tougher battle in the House.

The bill is sponsored by seven of the 13 senators on the Senate committee, but some members have raised questions about a proposal by Mr. Baker to reduce the percentage of revenue that would go to education.

Developers at National Harbor said they support the project but would participate only if allowed to offer table games.

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