Opponents to slots in Prince George's County prepared to fight

As builders near completion of the largest slots casino adjacent to Arundel Mills in Hanover, state legislators are considering a bill that would expand slot parlors – and table games —intoPrince George's County.

Senate Bill 892, proposed by seven senators, include District 23 Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, would authorize licenses for an additional 4,750 slot machines "in a specified location inPrince George's County." An identical house bill – HB 1265 – has been submitted by District 21 Del. Barbara Frush.

"The county is in need of revenue," Frush said. "I also represent a portion of Anne Arundel County and know the benefits they will receive from a casino. I believed it would be a benefit toPrince George's County also."

But much like four years ago, opponents to slots legislation remain ardently opposed and are prepared to fight it every step of the way.

Former state Del. Gerron Levi, who represented parts of South Laurel during her time in the House, is helping lead that fight, helping to organize county faith-based and civic groups in a petition drive to halt slots expansion.

"Win, lose or draw we have to fight bad public policy, and this is bad public policy," Levi said. "The cost will outweigh any benefits of bringing any slots, and that has been borne out before."

Under current law, only five locations statewide can host slots casinos: two on the Eastern Shore, one near Pimlico, one in western Maryland and one in Anne Arundel County. Officials with Magna Entertainment sought a license to operate the Anne Arundel location at Laurel Park race track, but were denied when they submitted the necessary deposit a day late in February 2009.

The twin bills would create a sixth location in Prince George's County, and allow all locations to operate table games if approved by voters in a statewide referendum. While the Prince George's County location is not specified in the bill, speculation has centered on Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, and National Harbor.

In a recent statement announcing his support of SB 892, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker pushed for the National Harbor location.

"If gaming comes to Prince George's County, it must be a high-end facility … that features gaming, live shows, dining and lodging," he said. "National Harbor is the perfect location for this high-end $1 billion entertainment complex."

Baker said such a complex would bolster tourism, while adding to the commercial tax base, generating county revenue and creating upwards of 5,000 jobs, but noted that he wanted to see amendments that would address concerns to ensure that gambling in the county would not alter "the level of service and amenities that … citizens deserve."

Levi, however, questioned the ability of slots to produce revenue, saying that it does take into account social costs such as addiction treatment, additional public safety measures and other new costs.

"There would be thousands of slots from Baltimore through Anne Arundel to Prince George's County. Who else has that many in such a concentrated area," she asked. "The sheer saturation is a lot and it's going to have a tremendous impact that we're not calculating."

If approved as written, the Prince George's County casino would tie the Anne Arundel location for the largest casino in the state, with 4,750 slots in each location. Baltimore would have the second most with 3,750 machines.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, of District 21, is also opposed to a slots expansion.

"Financial stress is hard on families. Gambling needlessly adds to those stretches," she said. "I did not support slots for the Laurel race track because I thought it was bad for our district. My view about slots in Prince George's County is the same."

Levi agreed, noting that a quarter of foreclosures statewide are occurring in Prince George's County.

"It's a known debt-creator being put in the middle of a foreclosure crisis," she said. "We don't need to create an attractive nuisance."

Sen. James Rosapepe said he has not decided how he will vote, but is "open-minded" about expansion.

Rosapepe said he plans to read the bill more closely before deciding, noting that the bill must require a statewide referendum, slots revenue must be properly distributed to state funds and that he also hopes to get input from the communities directly impacted by the expansion.

"There has been discussion that some of the money from gambling in Prince George's County would go toward a new hospital in the county," he said. "That's important and we do need money for that."

However, he added that he would also take into consideration the social impacts of gambling.

"There's no question that some people are damaged by gambling and that's a huge minus," he said. "But there are pluses and they must be considered. Both sides have to be considered."

Such pluses, he said, included keeping money in-state where it can pay for education, public safety and new hospitals instead of allowing neighboring states such as Delaware and West Virginia to gain more money from Marylanders who visit casinos there.

"It's a trade-off and I want to see the specifics," Rosapepe said. "The details of whether it's a good trade-off or a bad trade-off are in the specifics."

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