Baker: Prince George's casino would benefit the entire state

As a work group of state officials considers the wisdom of authorizing a new casino location in Prince George's County and expanding gaming facilities' offerings to include table games, we need to focus on maximizing the overall return for taxpayers. We must ensure that our existing casinos are competitive with those in neighboring states, and we must position our gaming program to ensure we take advantage of our strategic location next to one of the largest tourist attractions in the world: Washington, D.C.

Just this week, a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the legislature's fiscal analysts noted that "the Maryland market could sustain a sixth [slots] facility in Prince George's County." Specifically the report found that the addition of a site at National Harbor would generate an extra $246 million in gaming revenue that would result in at least $100 million annually in new funds for education throughout the state.

In recent months, we've heard David Cordish, the owner of the casino that recently opened next to the Arundel Mills Mall, express his sentiment that he had a "deal" with the state and that opening a new casino in Prince George's County would undermine that "deal." Maryland enacted what turned out to be an untenable gaming program in 2007, but he argues that a deal is a deal and legislators should not step in to fix the law and ensure a better return for taxpayers.

In a recent news article, Mr. Cordish admits that he projects the Arundel Mills Mall casino will be, in the language of baseball, "a nice, long single," and he is satisfied with that.

Given Maryland's financial needs and our lack of major new sources of revenue on the horizon, is a gaming program that creates "singles" for our state budget really what we need at the moment?

I don't want to see either the county or the state's budget balanced on "singles." I want us to find a way to hit some home runs, and, based on what I have seen so far from legislative analysts and outside casino finance experts I think that table games and a world-class resort casino at National Harbor are two key building blocks to achieving that. A destination facility will maximize the state's ability to generate revenue not only in gaming taxes but also from property, income, sales and admission and amusement tax. It will also create thousands of additional jobs for our residents.

Let's be clear about our gaming program. When the General Assembly approved the initial law in 2007, and when voters approved it at the polls a year later, the law explicitly contained a provision allowing for the expansion in the future to more sites. None of the prospective casino bidders were in the dark about that fact, and the attorney general's office recently confirmed that in a recent opinion letter to lawmakers.

But this debate isn't just about National Harbor, it is also about the gaming facility that will be located in Baltimore. So the question that faces us in 2012 is, do we want slots barns in such prime locations as National Harbor and near Baltimore's Inner Harbor? Or do we want world class resort casinos that offer not just gaming but a wide range of dining and entertainment opportunities? One option represents a "single" for Maryland. The other option offers the opportunity for "home runs."

With neither Virginia nor Washington, D.C., permitting gaming, Maryland needs to position a high-end casino at a place like National Harbor, where we can tap into the dollars of out-of-state residents and the millions of visitors who come to the nation's capital each year for tourism and conventions. That's what Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been doing to us for years.

Would a casino at National Harbor cut into the projected business at Arundel Mills? There might be some effect, which is why the work group is considering options that would hold the Arundel Mills casino operator harmless through financial incentives. But all of us who are forced to endure the traffic between Baltimore and Washington know that these are separate markets — and the outside experts agree with that conclusion.

Last year, Pennsylvania took in $2.8 billion from tax revenues from its casinos' slots and table game operations. Our state's two casinos with slots only generated less than $90 million. Let's stop focusing on "singles" and start thinking "home runs" for Maryland.

Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, is the Prince George's County Executive.

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