Harford County Executive David R. Craig has asked a state work group studying gambling expansion to consider Harford as a casino site despite the proximity of an existing slots parlor in neighboring Cecil County.
Craig, a Republican considered likely to run for governor in 2014, sent a letter to panel chairman John Morton III asking that his county be considered. At its first meeting last week, the panel focused on a proposal to locate a sixth casino — in addition to the five allowed under current law — in Prince George's County.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders named the panel last month to conduct a quick study of options for expanding gambling beyond the slots-only casinos permitted in Perryville, Ocean Downs, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore and Rocky Gap in Allegany County.
The work group is attempting to determine if a consensus can be reached on a plan that could be put to a vote in a special session of the General Assembly. O'Malley has said that if a deal can be achieved, he would call lawmakers back to Annapolis July 9.
In his letter, Craig told Morton that a Harford casino would generate tens of millions of dollars for the state as well as provide revenue for the county to help make up for the legislature's recent decision to shift a large share of teacher pension costs from the state to the counties. Craig said he favors legislation that would let Harford voters decide whether they want a casino in the county.
"Although I have never been a strong believer in balancing one's budget through gaming revenue, the magnitude of the teacher pension shift warrants that we consider all options," he said. He said the legislation he would like would direct all of the county's revenue from any casino to teacher pensions and school construction.
Craig acknowledged there might be concerns about locating a new casino close to the existing Hollywood Casino in Perryville, directly across the Susquehanna River from Harford. But he said having "two first-rate gaming facilities" in Northeast Maryland would help make the region a "tourism hub" that could compete for visitors with nearby states.
He asked that a state consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers, expand its current study of the gambling market to include a Harford location and asked to make a presentation to the work group, which will meet again June 12.
The three senators who represent Harford parted ways with their fellow Republican on the casino issue.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, whose district spans Harford and Cecil, said she had not been consulted on the idea. She said Harford is too close to the existing facility in Perryville,
"Cecil County's just five minutes over the bridge," Jacobs said. "You're going to spread it out so much that nobody's going to make any money."
Sen. J. B. Jennings, whose district includes part of Baltimore County, said putting another casino in Northeast Maryland would lead to "ultra-saturation" of the market.
Sen. Barry Glassman, who represents an all-Harford district, agreed that Perryville is too close. But he said Craig's statement reflects the fact that Harford was hurt by decisions made on taxes and the pension shift in the legislature's special session on budget issues held last month.
"I think that the county executive is more or less making a political point," he said.
In an interview Monday, Craig said he is making a point that O'Malley should not call another special session. But if one is called, Craig said, the legislature should authorize casinos in any county that wants one.
Craig discounted the effect a Harford casino would have on the Perryville location, which is owned by Penn National Gaming. "If you go to Las Vegas, you see casinos right next to each other, so that is not an issue," he said.
Craig did not suggest a specific site for a Harford casino.
He suggested that a Harford casino could be differentiated from the Perryville site to appeal to different customers — perhaps by allowing gambling on a riverboat.
Officials at Penn National Gaming, which operates the Perryville casino, could not be reached for comment. David Cordish, chief executive of the company that is opening the new Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills this week, said he is just as opposed to a Harford casino as he is to one in Prince George's County.
"It is too early to change the rules on the existing five designees," Cordish said. He said it would be unfair to companies that have made large investments in casinos to add new sites before the market has stabilized and before operators see actual financial results.
"If Maryland were to change the playing rules before three of the five original designees are even open, it sends a terrible message to the business and lending communities, both in and outside of Maryland, that Maryland is an unreliable partner," Cordish said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun