Three years after voters statewide approved a referendum allowing slot machines at limited sites in Maryland, the Prince George's County Council voted 5-4 on Nov. 15 to table a bill that would prohibit slots in the county.
In the final legislative session of 2011, the County Council voted to wait until next year to make a decision on the possibility of slots in the county —specifically at Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.
Mary Lehman, Laurel's District 1 representative on the County Council and co-sponsor of CB-49, said she was disappointed in the vote.
"It's not an easy vote, but I think it needed to be done now," Lehman said Tuesday. "It's still out there, unresolved. We had an honest disagreement about what jobs we need and how to grow the economy, and now we'll just have to wait."
By tabling the vote, the council also gave the state legislature time to consider a statewide referendum on expanding the locations where slots are legal and possibly whether to expand gambling laws to allow table games in Maryland.
County Executive Rushern Baker III applauded the County Council's decision, while clarifying that he would not take a position on slots in the county.
"I opposed CB-49 because it was unnecessary legislation. Slots are not allowed in Prince George's County per the Maryland constitution," Baker said in a statement. "I want to see all the options on the table, the costs and benefits to any proposed expansion of gaming, and whether it would be the right course of action we would want to take for the future of Prince George's County."
The hearing for the bill, held during the council's regularly scheduled meeting Nov. 15, included more than 80 witnesses from both sides of the argument.
Slots debate continues
This is the fourth straight year Laurel has watched from up close as the legalization of slots is debated, even after Maryland voters in 2008 approved slots at five specific locations statewide: west Anne Arundel County, Baltimore city, Worcester County, Cecil County and near the Rocky Gap resort.
The Anne Arundel County Council took up the issue of whether to allow slots at Arundel Mills, in Hanover, or to limit the county's location to Laurel Park after controversy arose when a bid was submitted to build a slots casino at Arundel Mills; at the time, Magna Entertainment Corporation —the owner of Laurel Park —failed to submit the necessary fees to bid for a slots license at the west Anne Arundel County race track.
Anne Arundel County residents voted last November to allow slots at Arundel Mills in a countywide referendum.
Now, the issue has moved to Prince George's County after Penn National Gaming, which owns and operates Rosecroft, began a push to legalize slots at the track. After re-opening the formerly bankrupt facility in August and resuming live racing in October, the company, which also owns a slots operation in Cecil County, began pushing for legalization of slots in Prince George's County.
That led Prince George's County Council member Eric Olson to propose CB-49, which would alter county zoning laws to effectively ban slots in the county, a bill that Lehman quickly co-sponsored.
"I was taken off guard by this," she said. "We voted on this in 2008 … but maybe this debate never ceased."
Lehman said she co-sponsored the bill because she believes that the "economics and morals" of slot machines do not match up with what's needed for the county's future.
"Economically, I don't think this is the way to go," she said. "I don't think this is how you get from good to great."
She noted that while some proponents say slots will bring new jobs, Charles Ttown, W.Va., which is home to Hollywood Casino, has 7.6 percent unemployment, while Clark County, Nev., home to gaming mecca Las Vegas, has 13.6 percent unemployment. Both those numbers are higher than Prince George's County's unemployment numbers.
"Our economy literally would be based on a house of cards, and I don't think that's the way to go," she said. "And that's not even considering the social ills associated."
Lehman said that while both sides appear to be passionately debating the issue more than three years after it was seemingly resolved, she was happy to see that voters remain engaged, even if it drags out the debate.
"It kind of restores your faith that we all care," she said. "Frankly, I wish every council meeting had that many testimonies."