Prince George's Co. lawmakers to vote on slots-ban bill

In 2007, when the Maryland General Assembly was considering five locations for slot machines, the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver sought to keep casinos out of Prince George's County.

Weaver — who leads the Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie — is once again fighting efforts to bring slots to the county amid increasing talk among state lawmakers of expanding Maryland's menu of gambling options next year.

Slots opponents hope Prince George's County officials send a clear message to Annapolis on Tuesday, when the County Council is to vote on zoning legislation that would essentially ban slots in the county.

Sponsored by Councilman Eric Olson and backed by three of his colleagues, the proposal has renewed intense debate and lobbying about the benefits and drawbacks of slots. The legislation needs five out of nine votes to pass.

"Slot machines would be an absolute disaster for Prince George's County," Weaver said, citing gambling addiction, a rise in crime, traffic congestion and financial strain on already struggling residents.

Prince George's County is not among the five designated slots locations under the state's gambling program. Two parlors, in Cecil County and on the Eastern Shore, have opened, while a third, at Arundel Mills mall, is expected to begin operations in June.

Meanwhile, the state slots commission is considering offers for proposed casinos in Western Maryland and in Baltimore City. Bidders led by Caesars Entertainment Corp. unveiled a plan for a city casino on Monday.

But some top state lawmakers, such as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., want the legislature to consider allowing table games at casinos — which are legal in neighboring states such as West Virginia — and adding slots at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.

Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, has been a vocal supporter of slots at the harness track.

Olson said the Prince George's bill would keep the intent of the 2008 statewide referendum that legalized slots gambling at the five designated locations "honest" and "consistent."

Adding new locations to the state's slots program would require the passage of a statewide referendum to change the Maryland Constitution.

Moreover, slot machines do not fit with Prince George's County's vision of itself, Olson said.

"We're looking to expand the economic pie and slots are not something that does that," he said.

Rosecroft's owner, Penn National Gaming, has made clear that it needs slots to ensure the survival of the once-bankrupt racetrack. Penn National, which bought Rosecroft for $12 million in a bankruptcy auction this year, reopened the facility in August and resumed live racing last month after a two-year hiatus.

On the eve of the Prince George's County Council's scheduled vote, Penn National released a statement of support for slots from various business and union groups that touted the potential new source of revenue and other economic benefits.

Last month, Penn National also released economic impact studies that found slots at Rosecroft would generate at least $346 million in tax revenue for the state and local jurisdictions in the first year of operation. Tax revenue would total $1.9 billion over five years, the studies said.

"We remain hopeful that the County will allow us to continue the discussion regarding slots at Rosecroft Raceway," Penn spokeswoman Karen Bailey said in a statement Monday. "It's hard to deny the opportunity to discuss the chance for thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions in gaming revenues that can be generated at Rosecroft."

But Weaver, along with other church leaders and slots opponents, says expanding gambling in Prince George's County would be a mistake.

"It would be a human disaster simply because of the disastrous effects [gambling] has on individuals as well as families," Weaver said.

A coalition of more than 150 churches called the Collective Empowerment Group has proposed a family-friendly development at Rosecroft as an alternative to slots.

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