County Exec Baker drumming up support for Prince George's casino

As November gets closer, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III is increasing his efforts to drum up support for the gambling expansion question that will be on the ballot.

On Thursday, Baker organized a news conference, calling on fellow Democratic county executives Ken Ulman, of Howard County, and Ike Leggett, of Montgomery County, to speak alongside him in favor of Question 7.

"It's not just about gaming ... it's about jobs; it's about good union jobs that we're creating," Baker said from a podium bearing the Prince George's County seal that was placed in downtown Silver Spring's Veterans Plaza for the news conference.

If the measure is approved, table games and a sixth casino in Prince George's County will be added to the state's gambling program, which is currently limited to five slots-only locations. The General Assembly gave its approval to table games, the sixth casino and other changes to the gambling program in a special session last month.

"This is about expanding resources in the state," Baker said.

He added: "Ken is here making sure Howard County, Baltimore County, everyone understands how important it is."

Ulman's remarks in support of the gambling expansion were the first time he publicly discussed the question.

"It's about education; it's about jobs," Ulman said.

In his brief remarks, Ulman talked about the 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs that would be created by a sixth casino, as well as the dealer jobs table games would create at all the casinos in the state.

He also discussed the revenue the expansion would raise for the Education Trust Fund, which is where the majority of gambling revenues are earmarked to go.

Jobs and money for education are two of the arguments Baker most often gives in support of the gambling expansion, which he has vocally supported since a bill for a Prince George's casino was proposed in the General Assembly's regular session early this year. He also talks often about the economic development potential for Prince George's County.

In a statement emailed following the news conference, Kevin McLaughlin, spokesman for the Vote No On 7 coalition, which has sponsored many of the opposition ads, said the claims from the county executives were "overly optimistic."

He added: "Independent media fact checkers like The Baltimore Sun find their promises of new jobs and increased education funding to be 'blatantly misleading.' The more voters learn about Question 7, the more obvious it becomes that Question 7 is a bad deal for Maryland."

'Despicable' ads

A theme Baker, Ulman and Leggett honed-in on during their remarks at the news conference was fighting the money being spent on advertising against the gambling expansion referendum.

"Those ads are paid for by the people who stand to benefit," Leggett said, calling the ads "despicable."

Added Ulman: "Just like I want Maryland to beat West Virginia in football on Saturday, I want the great state of Maryland to beat back this out-of-state money that's coming from West Virginia in November."

Ulman is referring to the $9.5 million Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va., has raised for its campaign against Question 7.

Baker, too, said he believes Penn National's attack ads are based on protecting revenues it earns from Marylanders who go to gamble in Charles Town.

But Penn National also has ties to Maryland, as it owns Hollywood Casino in Perryville and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County. Penn National wants Rosecroft to be a part of the site discussion for the sixth casino, but Baker and other politicians have thrown their support behind National Harbor, a site that has drawn interest from the world's largest casino operator, MGM Resorts International.

Asked if he thought his support for National Harbor over Rosecroft had anything to do with Penn National's opposition to Question 7, Baker said "No, I don't think it's about that." He explained that the bill the General Assembly passed leaves the site selection open to a competitive bidding process, and if the referendum is approved, he expects Penn National will throw its hat into the ring for Rosecroft.

In an interview following the press conference, Ulman said it was the money Penn National was spending on the effort, which he said indicates "how lucrative it is to keep that Maryland pipeline going to West Virginia," that made him decide to lend his voice in support of the referendum. He said he wants that gambling money to stay in Maryland.

"I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I would or should get involved. ... At the end of the day, that's what really tipped me over," Ulman said.

Some of the attacks have said gambling revenues will not go back to the classrooms, as politicians have promised. But Baker said Ulman and Leggett and other elected officials outside of Prince George's County would not have lent their support to the cause "without a strong commitment this is going to education."

Though Baker is seeking support from elected officials to reach out to voters all over the state, he also acknowledges that it's important to focus on voters in his home county.

"We're doubling our efforts in Prince George's County to make sure voters understand how critical it is to us," Baker said, noting "like any campaign, we'll be out there knocking on doors, making calls."

If Prince George's County voters reject the ballot question, there will be no Prince George's casino, regardless of what happens statewide. If the state as a whole supports the question and Prince George's County voters reject it, table games will still be approved for the five previously approved casinos.

"You'll hear me talk about this issue in Prince George's County," Baker said. "But you'll also hear me talking about it statewide."

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