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General Assembly approves Prince George's casino, table games, referendum

The Maryland General Assembly — with not a single vote to spare in the House but a heavy cushion in the Senate — gave final approval early Wednesday to a bill that would add table games and a sixth casino inPrince George's County to the state's gambling program.

Now the fate of the planned gambling expansion will be left for the voters to decide in November. A single question, tying the table games component to the sixth casino, will be posed on the ballot.

If the proposal is approved by the majority of voters statewide but rejected by the majority ofPrince George's Countyvoters, the sixth casino will not happen, but table games will be allowed at the five already approved locations.

The gambling expansion legislation narrowly escaped the House of Delegates, as the 71-58 vote was just enough needed to pass the bill.

"I'm very, very pleased," Prince George's CountyExecutive Rushern Baker, one of the main backers of the bill, said shortly after both chambers gave their final approval to the bill, noting it was "very tough treading in the House."

Baker, a Democrat, expressed optimism that the voters will approve the ballot question. However, he noted "it will be a robust fight" both in the county and statewide.

After the House vote, Baker and District 21 Del. Barbara Frush expressed their pleasure by embracing in a hug.

"The biggest challenge was here in the House," Frush, a Democrat, said after Baker left her to go observe the Senate vote.

Asked if the House approval of the bill could have been predicted, Frush noted: "It was always questionable."

Baker and Frush have supported and pushed for a casino in Prince George's County as a way to bring much-needed revenue to the county and the state, create jobs and fuel economic development in the county.

"It's a revenue source for our schools," Frush added.

The legislation, according to state estimates, is expected to generate an additional $175 million for the state's education trust fund once the Prince George's County casino opens, which the bill specifies cannot be until July 2016.

Tax rates for operators lowered

The majority of the 67 percent of slots revenues the state currently collects from operators already goes to the education trust fund. However, in passing the bill, the General Assembly significantly lowered the 67 percent tax rate on operators, with the rates varying at each facility.

Most of the new money for the educational trust fund is expected to come from savings the state will reap from shifting the ownership of slot machines from the state to the larger operators, and from table game revenues.

Frush, her District 21 colleague Ben Barnes, District 23A Dels. James Hubbard and Geraldine Valentino-Smith and District 13 Dels. Frank Turner, Guy Guzzone and Shane Pendergrass — all Democrats — voted for the bill.

The only delegate who represents Laurel to vote against it was District 21 Democrat Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who has consistently voted against slots and gambling bills.

"It's not the way we should balance our budget," she said. "It's not something stable."

The Senate, which had passed Gov.Martin O'Malley's original bill with few changes last week, voted 32-14 to pass the bill as amended by the House.

Laurel's representatives in the Senate — Democrats Jim Rosapepe, of District 21;Douglas J.J. Peters, of District 23; and Jim Robey, of District 13 — all voted in favor of the proposal.

The Senate has always been more warm to gambling than the House. This proposal was particularly easy to get through the chamber because it had tremendous backing from Senate President Mike Miller.

As Miller noted after the final vote: "They (the House) had a much more difficult path than myself."

Miller said he sees the legislation as "a win-win for the people of the state of Maryland."

Asked if he sees it as a personal victory, Miller said: "No, not whatsoever. In fact I'm not going to be at the bill signing."

Gov.Martin O'Malleywas scheduled to sign the bill Wednesday morning. Miller had a family commitment.

"It's an important bill, but nothing's more important than family," Miller said.

If the Prince George's County casino is approved by the voters, it will be open to a competitive bidding process. Bids are limited to a location in the county "within 4 miles of the intersection of Bock Road and St. Barnabas Road," which encompasses both National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway.

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

Miller, too, has expressed support for National Harbor. But after the vote Wednesday, he said: "I'm also for the Rosecroft site. ... I wish there were some way they could share the machines, personally."

One of the obstacles to Rosecroft being selected is that its owner, Penn National Gaming, is the operator of Hollywood Casino in Perryville, and state law prevents a company from holding more than one slots license.

However, Penn National representatives have noted other obstacles they face. In written testimony submitted last week to the House Ways and Means Committee, 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 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 wrote.

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