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Supporters of gambling expansion take to the airwaves

Days after political talks on expanding gambling in Maryland collapsed, a group pushing for a casino at National Harbor has taken its case to the public by buying television ads in the Baltimore market and staging a rally in Annapolis.

The group behind the effort — called Building Trades for the National Harbor — wants Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders to call a special session of the General Assembly to pass a law allowing a casino at the National Harbor development in Prince George's County.

They argue that allowing a sixth casino in Maryland would create construction and service jobs, add money to the state's coffers and reduce pressure for tax increases. Opponents counter that expansion could jeopardize revenues from the five currently authorized sites — only three of which have opened — and dispute the projected profit to the state.

Mark Coles, a lobbyist for the Washington D.C. Building Trades Council, said the council is part of the group paying for the television ads. He declined to say who else is in that group, referring questions to a public affairs firm that represents the Peterson Cos., National Harbor's owners.

A state panel considering whether Maryland should allow a sixth casino and the addition of table games, such as blackjack, at all six sites failed to reach a consensus last week. While representatives of the governor and state Senate supported a proposal, representatives of the House of Delegates dissented from the plan. A major sticking point was whether the state's 67 percent tax rate on slot machine revenues, should be lowered, a provision believed necessary to attract a top-shelf operator to the National Harbor site.

Casino giant MGM Resorts International has said it will work with the Peterson Cos. to build a hotel complex and casino at National Harbor, if the conditions are right. They want the lower tax rate and approval for table games.

Timing is key: Making changes to the state gambling program requires voter approval. If the question does not go on the November 2012 ballot, the next opportunity would be in 2014, when state lawmakers are also up for re-election.

O'Malley has not ruled out the possibility that he will still call all 188 senators and delegates back to Annapolis for another special session this summer. He met Friday evening with House Speaker Michael E. Busch for about 45 minutes. A spokeswoman for the governor has said conversations are continuing. Busch declined to comment Monday.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's native, are among those pushing for a measure to allow the National Harbor site. Representatives of Caesars Entertainment, which expects to open a casino in Baltimore, have said they also support the measure because they would like to offer table games.

Officials of the Cordish Cos., operators of the new casino at Arundel Mills, are opposed. Joe Weinberg, president of the gaming and resorts division, reiterated his company's position Monday. "We have consistently, vocally and directly stated that it is premature to consider additional casino licenses in Maryland," he said.

Weinberg said the company would like to offer table games if permitted in Maryland, but said the state would be over-saturated if a sixth location were approved. "To add another mega-casino in the very same market based on politics, rather than prudence, is unwise," Weinberg said.

Meanwhile, supporters of gambling at National Harbor are buying ads.

Records at WBAL and WJZ, the Baltimore area's two largest television stations, show that Building Trades for the National Harbor spent nearly $60,000 Monday buying about 75 ad slots — mostly during news programs.

The 30-second ads will start Tuesday morning and run through Thursday. They show children getting off a school bus and promise that a new casino would add education funds. The ad urges viewers to call their lawmakers, flashing a toll-free number on the screen that connects callers with the General Assembly switchboard.

The pro-National Harbor group also staged a brief rally in Annapolis on Monday where about two dozen union members — many of whom would benefit from the jobs at a new casino — held up signs in front of a bank of television cameras.

"We should at least let the voters decide," said O. Abiola Afolayan, the political director for a union that represents hotel and restaurant workers employed by the Gaylord Hotels at National Harbor.

The coalition also released a letter supporting a sixth casino that was signed by union leaders from the Washington D.C. Building Trades Council, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Del. Sam Arora, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he's hearing the effects of a further publicity effort in the Washington suburbs. Arora said he received five voicemail messages in one hour Monday urging him to support a sixth casino.

"After hearing that the negotiations collapsed, I thought the specter of a special session was gone, but it still looms large," said Arora, who has not made up his mind on the issue.

Building Trades for the National Harbor is organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code and does not need to disclose donors. Members include the Washington D.C. Building Trades Council and "fellow labor unions and aligned business interests," said Howard Libit of Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs, which represents the Peterson Cos.

Opponents have also mounted a lobbying effort. A Virginia-based group called Protecting Taxpayers sent out a glossy mailing, asking, "Do you support tax cuts for casino operators when your taxes are going up?"

"The notion that the legislature has to cut casino taxes in order to get a casino built at National Harbor is ludicrous," said David Williams, the group's president. "If you don't like the state rules, then don't build."

The mailers went to "a dozen key legislative districts," Williams said. That group, too, is not required to disclose its donors. Weinberg, with the Cordish Co., said his firm is not connected with that effort.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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