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House Ways and Means passes a gambling bill

The House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill that would allow gambling in Prince George's County and table games at all Maryland casinos on a 14 to 4 vote. Four members abstained.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said that he likes the bill. "If this is the product that gets passed, I will be happy," Baker said. He said he is "very comfortable" that the bill would allow a high-end casino at National Harbor.

Joe Weinberg, a top official at the Cordish Company, said he wants the bill to fail. "We oppose any expansion of gambling sites in Maryland," he said. His company is poised to open the state's largest casino this summer.

Weinberg added that the only "common sense" approach would be to add table games to the five authorized casinos.

Its still unclear if the bill will have enough support to clear the House of Delegates. Del. Curt Anderson, the head of the Baltimore city delegation, said the city lawmakers are "not yet" comfortable with the bill. Their 18 votes will likely be needed for passage.

Ways and Means was supposed to meet around 3 p.m., but the voting session was delayed again and again. Lobbyists for gambling interests stayed close to the committee room all afternoon. The room filled as the bill was finally taken up around 6 p.m.

The bill would allow 3,000 slots machines at National Harbor. Rosecroft Raceway, another site whose owner has shown interest in the opening a casino, would not be included. The Prince George's casino would only be allowed to open in July 2016 -- a date that is meant to give Baltimore some time to establish itself before new competition arrives.

The bill would put the question to voters in November 2012 -- and if a majority of Prince George's County citizens vote against the measure, the slots location commission would be prohibited from awarding a license to PG.

Unlike other drafts of the bill, this one does not increase the overall number of video lottery machines in Maryland. The Prince George's casino would have to use some of the 3,200 unallocated machines that have already been authorized by voters.

Lawmakers from Prince George's supported the bill in committee.

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