The chief executive officer of MGM Resorts International, which wants to open a luxury casino at National Harbor, said Thursday that his company has dropped efforts to win tax breaks from the Maryland General Assembly to build a gambling palace at thePrince George's County site.
James J. Murren was in Annapolis to meet with the news media and lawmakers to make the case for passing a bill to expand gambling in Maryland during a planned special session of the General Assembly this summer. He said his company wants to be in Maryland regardless of whether the legislature cuts the current 67 percent tax on slot machine revenues.
"We do not want to sucked into the tax debate. We have been sucked into a debate we have no role in being in," he said. "We just want to know what the rules are, and we want to be here."
Gov.Martin O'Malleyis expected to announce Friday that he is summoning lawmakers back to the capital to consider legislation that would allow a casino in Prince George's and the addition of table games at all Maryland casinos.
Murren's comments are a change from the company's position in June, when the CEO called Maryland's slots tax "egregiously high" and said MGM couldn't build a casino at that rate.
Opponents of gambling expansion in general and the National Harbor site in particular seized on proposals to cut the slots tax in Maryland as part of the gambling bill. National Harbor's rivals and others have accused the state's political leaders of planning to give tax breaks to wealthy casino operators just months after raising income taxes on about 14 percent of Maryland taxpayers. Doubts about cutting the slots tax rate have been one of the chief obstacles to passage of the bill in the House of Delegates.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Murren conceded the line of attack has resonated.
"It has played very well," Murren said. "'Why give tax breaks to billionaire casino guys when you've raised my taxes?'"
At various times in the debate over National Harbor, some of its proponents — including its developer, the Peterson Cos. — have said a lower tax rate would be needed to allow the type of upscale casino they want at the riverfront site. Murren did not take that approach Thursday.
He did say that any slots tax rate the General Assembly might set would affect the level of investment the company would make at the Potomac River site, assuming it were chosen over other potential Prince George's sites. The lower the rate, he said, the more money the company would be able to invest into making it a more attractive destination. That, he suggested, could bring more money to the state.
However, Murren said, the company is prepared to invest at least $500 million — along with another $200 million provided by the developer of National Harbor — even if the General Assembly makes no change in the tax rate beyond a relatively noncontroversial adjustment to compensate operators for taking over the purchase of slot machines.
Even if gambling legislation fails in a special session, Murren said the international casino giant will not walk away from the National Harbor site. But he noted that a delay beyond August would mean the voters would have to wait until 2014 to weigh in on the issue.
"I think it's a shame then because you'd lose two years on revenue, jobs, taxes," he said.
One of the leading opponents of a casino at National is David Cordish, chief executive of the company that developed the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills. Cordish contends that legislative approval of a license in Prince George's so soon after his June opening would be unfair to his facility.
The MGM executive said he would agree with Cordish if the proposal on the table were simply to add a sixth casino. But he contended that the addition of table games would let all casino operators — and the state — bring in more money and make their licenses more valuable.
Murren also addressed a recent TV ad campaign launched by the Prince George's County Contractors and Business Association in which the group draws a connection between MGM and organized crime. He said the company was "extremely upset with this body of lies."
Lisa Ellis, public affairs director for the minority contractors' group, said the association stands behind the ads.
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