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Harford elected officials have mixed reactions to Craig's casino proposal

It wasn't exactly crickets chirping, but the response to Harford County Executive David Craig's casino proposal from other elected officials was not overly enthusiastic.

Some wondered why Craig was suddenly supportive of gambling for Harford after opposing it when the potential presented itself six years ago.

The county executive testified in Annapolis Tuesday about his desire for a possible riverboat casino to help the county offset the steep cost of teacher pensions and other rising education costs.

Sen. Barry Glassman, who represents northern Harford County, suspects political motives.

"I think this whole last-minute push on the gaming issue is really more about his gubernatorial strategy than the practical politics of getting gambling in Harford County," Glassman, who is expected to run for county executive in 2014 when Craig will reach his two-term limit, said Wednesday.

The state's work group on expanding gambling has been in a major debate over allowing gambling in Prince George's County, and Glassman said there is "no way" another casino so close to the Hollywood Casino Perryville would be allowed.

"You are talking five minutes [away], and they are having a huge debate whether to add one in Prince George's County," he said. "I just don't think the whole thing is very practical."

Glassman admitted the premise of the original slots legislation and how it was put in the Constitution "is really flawed," but nevertheless does not think it is fair to the people who signed up for the original casino sites, "the folks who played by the rules."

Different views on different shores

Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty, for one, thinks the idea makes sense. As Havre de Grace has the most significant waterfront in the county, it would be the obvious location for a riverboat casino.

"Personally, I would look at it," Dougherty said. "I certainly think it's something that would benefit Havre de Grace."

Dougherty said he and Craig had talked about the casino idea earlier.

"Of course the jury would still be out. I would probably have a lot of questions, but just to get it started, the approach that the county executive is using is probably the proper approach," he said.

Dougherty does not think a Harford casino would negatively affect Hollywood Casino Perryville, the state's first slots venue which has been open since September 2010.

"It's a completely different venue," he said, referring to the riverboat idea.

Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt disagreed, however.

He said the state is discussing the impact of a Prince George's County casino on Baltimore, and noted Hollywood Casino is already feeling the impact of the new casino at Arundel Mills that just opened.

A billboard for the Arundel Mills has already popped up on Route 40 near Havre de Grace.

"I just thought it was very close and it would certainly impact the casinos we have now," Eberhardt said of Craig's proposal. "I think it would impact and dilute the market a little bit."

Perryville and Cecil County are already reaping millions from the local share of revenue generated by the Perryville casino. Harford officials, including Craig, had an opportunity six years ago to pitch for a casino on their side of the Susquehanna. Most, however, seemed relieved when Cecil County officials said they would welcome gambling in their county.

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett said he had not seen Craig's testimony yet and did not have an opinion on the issue.

A spokesman for Del. Glen Glass, who represents Harford and part of the Perryville area in Annapolis, said he could not immediately speak about the issue.

Suzanne Collins, a spokeswoman for Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents the same district as Glass, said Jacobs plans to attend a special legislative session on the issue if one is scheduled for July 9.

Collins also said she still has to look over a new report from the state's Department of Legislative Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which rebuffed concerns that a proposed casino in Prince George's County would significantly affect business at casinos elsewhere.

"She [Jacobs] thinks it's a complicated issue," Collins said. "She hasn't had a chance to pick apart that PricewaterhouseCoopers report."

"It's a complicated issue with many business implications," Collins added.

Craig defends position

Craig replied Thursday to claims that he has changed his stance on gambling in Harford.

"My comment years ago and my comment today is the same: I don't believe the government should rely on gambling to balance its budget," he said. "But if we are going to have gambling, then the money should be used in other things."

Craig said items like capital projects are the perfect way to use gambling funds.

The idea of only having five casino sites and limiting them to certain counties is problematic, Craig said.

"Why shouldn't it be six or seven or eight or nine?" he asked. "Why should Prince George's County be allowed to be the one that comes in and gets considered?"

Craig, who previously served in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate, was blunt about his hopes for the county legislative delegation's support on this issue.

"I hope our delegates would actually support the people of our county instead of themselves," he said, explaining he simply wants the idea of expanded gambling to be on a referendum.

"This is an issue that should go to the people of Harford County," he said. "The state shouldn't just select Prince George's County through a political deal."

Craig said when he was testifying on Tuesday, representatives from Charles County also came in to request gambling.

The county executive also said Harford has been hurt by the state allowing eight Eastern Shore counties to have slot machines in places like American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls. Cecil County is in that group.

"That severely hurt Harford County's American Legions, particularly on the eastern side of the county," he said. "We should all have that option to do it."

Finally, Craig called for the possibility of table gambling, which he also said should not be called table "games," to distinguish them from board games like Monopoly or Risk.

Regarding the likelihood of the General Assembly actually approving a casino in Harford so close to the one in Perryville, Craig insisted distance is not a problem. He pointed out that in places like Las Vegas, having casinos right next to each other is actually beneficial to everyone.

"My solution for the General Assembly is they should just get a deck of cards and split it," he said sarcastically. "I am not betting that they are going to do this, because they like to take an issue and be overwhelmed by it."

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