Senate passes bill for Prince George's casino, tables games

The Maryland Senate Friday evening voted 28-14 to pass a bill that would add table games and a sixth casino in  Prince George's County to the state's gambling program.

While the Senate deliberated Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the bill. The committee is expected to vote on the bill Monday.

The Senate approval was expected but House approval is still questionable, though state leaders have expressed confidence in their plan.

If approved by both chambers, the proposal will be posed as a question to voters on the November ballot.

One of the main supporters of the sixth casino is Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker. He testified before the Ways and Means Committee in support of the bill, alongside Baltimore MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov.Martin O'Malley's chief legislative officer Joseph Bryce.

"Given the pull and tug trying to make sure we get something that's fair to everyone, I think the governor has done a good job (on the bill)," Baker said.

Baker, repeating comments he's made in the past, said a casino in Prince George's County would bring much-needed revenue to the county and the state, create jobs and fuel economic development in the county.

"This is not only a good proposition, it's one that's definitely needed for us," he said.

Following Baker was Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, a Republican who opposes the bill. He said it's "unfair," particularly to the Maryland Live casino that opened at Arundel Mills in June.

"This particular site would be a boa constrictor that would squeeze the life out of Maryland Live," Leopold said of National Harbor, the politically favored location for a Prince George's County casino.

Joe Weinberg, managing partner of Maryland Live operator the Cordish Companies, said it is premature for the state to be adding a sixth site, given that only three of the five already approved locations are even open at this point.

"We never would have made the investment in Maryland Live that we did if we knew that there was going to be a sixth site this early in the game," he said, noting that the five location limit is "embedded in the (state) constitution" and "you don't change the constitution ... on a frequent basis."

Asked during his testimony about that concern, Baker noted: "They were never guaranteed that there would not be another site."

Baker backs the National Harbor location for the casino, which has draw interest from MGM Resorts International, the world's largest casino operator.

"I want to be at National Harbor," MGM chairman and CEO James Murren said. "I want to be on the pad overlooking the Potomac."

Murren said he believes 70 percent of the revenue of a casino at that location would come from Washington and Virginia, located across the Potomac River. He also said MGM wants to attract other out-of-state business.

MGM is willing to invest $500 million in the project, which combined with an investment from National Harbor developer The Peterson Companies, would create a $800 million "destination" casino, Murren said. The facility, he noted, would include non-gaming amenities, such as high-end restaurants, a luxury spa and hotel rooms.

After going through the licensing and permitting process, Murren said it would take about two to two-and-a-half years to construct the facility he's envisioning.

National Harbor is the more talked about location of the sixth casino, but the bill leaves the location open to anywhere in the county "within 4 miles of the intersection of Bock Road and St. Barnabas Road," creating the opportunity for Rosecroft Raceway.

However, state law prevents an operator to hold more than one slots license and Rosecroft Raceway owner Penn National Gaming already holds the license for Hollywood Casino in Perryville. The original legislation proposed earlier this year changed that provision, but the current bill does not.

Eric Schippers, Penn Nation's senior vice president for public affairs, said he believes Baker and National Harbor developer Milt Peterson have reached an agreement behind closed doors.

"Absent a public statement to the contrary, it is our belief that the even if we were to be awarded a license, the county executive would utilize his authority to withhold the necessary zoning for us to construct a facility," Schippers said in written testimony.

The bill specifies that a Prince George's Casino could not open until July 2016, a provision Baker said is opposed by some Prince George's County legislators.

"There are many in my delegation who don't like the fact that we have to wait before the facility comes online," Baker said.

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