D.C.-area county debates gambling


OXON HILL -- If you look closely from the banks of the Potomac River here, past bulldozers and earth movers on ground that has been scraped bare, you can see the distinctive profile of the Washington Monument rising in the distance.

Some say this site in southern Prince George's County -- where an ambitious $2 billion waterfront hotel, shopping and entertainment complex known as National Harbor is planned -- would be a fine site for a casino-style gambling venue; others find that idea appalling.

The developers say only that they are monitoring developments in Annapolis and won't say whether they are interested in casino-style gambling. But key Prince George's legislative leaders say they would prefer to have gambling at National Harbor rather than at nearby Rosecroft Raceway, another potential site.

A bonanza awaits whoever gets a gambling license in southern Prince George's, gambling experts say, because it's close to Washington and its Virginia suburbs. That has given the county's political leaders a prominent voice in the white-hot statewide debate about expanding gambling and, some say, has put Prince George's in a position to decide the fate of slot machine legislation in Maryland.

"Unless Prince George's County supports slots, there will not be slots," asserts Wayne M. Clark, a political consultant who is a lobbyist for the County Council. "As Prince George's County goes, so go slots."

But Clark said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is rapidly losing support for his signature legislative issue because he has made little effort to sell the county's civic and political leaders on the merits of his slots proposal.

Indeed, many in this predominantly African-American county express resentment that it seems taken for granted that Prince George's County will be the site for one or more casino-style gambling establishments -- with little local control over those facilities and insufficient local revenues to offset their social costs.

The deep divisions in Prince George's were reflected in Friday's Senate vote to approve the governor's slots proposal and send it on to the House of Delegates. The county's eight senators split evenly.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson says he opposes the Senate's version of the slots bill, which was shepherded through that chamber by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, on Friday. The County Council also voted unanimously to go on record as opposing the proposal.

"It looks like it's designed to make us a big gambling haven," Johnson said. "I don't want the county to be a gambling haven."

A position paper that outlines the county executive's position says that slots "disproportionately prey upon lower-incomeindividuals. It is immoral for the state to exploit the false hope of the poor in order to fund education, or any other government program."

'Family atmosphere'

Johnson and others say they are offended that slots were ruled out for what have been described as "family-oriented," mostly white communities while Prince George's County has received no such consideration.

"We've got families in southern Prince George's County, and we want to protect our family atmospheres, too," said Donna F. Edwards, a community activist and slots opponent who lives in Fort Washington, near National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway.

She said Prince George's legislators who support the slots legislation aren't serving the interests of the county's residents.

"I think the political leadership in Prince George's County is bankrupt on this issue," Edwards said. "They've rolled over and said it's OK to thrust gambling establishments on our community when no other place will take them. ... What I see is a cabal of African-American political leadership, developers and gambling interests who are willing to balance the state's budget off the backs of the poor and the vulnerable."

The Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of the 3,000-member Ark of Safety Christian Church in Oxon Hill, said he is troubled that many of Prince George's legislative leaders in the House and Senate remain "on the bandwagon" for slots.

He noted an economic analysis done for the Prince George's County Business Roundtable that estimates potentially enormous costs -- running into tens of millions of dollars each year -- related to problem gambling, crime and social ills.

"If they won't accept it in Ocean City, why are we accepting it in Prince George's?" Muse asked. "If this is such an economic asset, why are we the only ones pushing for it?"

He said that Johnson's opposition to slots should carry the same weight as that of elected officials from Ocean City and elsewhere who were able to get their communities removed from the slots legislation.

Growing opposition

Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. said he believes that the growing opposition to slots at the local level is causing some Prince George's legislators who had been on the fence -- and even some slots supporters -- to rethink their position.

"I think the folks that are proponents of it should be nervous," said Holmes, a slots opponent. "It's not a slam-dunk like they thought it should have been."

Jim Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George's Business Roundtable, said that growing, vocal opposition to the slots proposal is causing heartburn among county political figures who are striving to stay on the right side of their constituents.

"It's fast becoming the third rail of politics in terms of this [legislative] session," he said.

The Senate's version of slots legislation and the messy process by which it was crafted appears to have had some fallout. It has firmed up opposition on the part of some House members.

Del. Obie Patterson, a Democrat who represents the area around Oxon Hill and Rosecroft, said he cannot envision any circumstance under which he would support the bill that emerged from the Senate.

He said it isn't fair to ask Prince George's County to accept slots to raise money for the state's treasury while other communities are exempt.

"If the governor wants this bill, why can't he get those elected officials to support [slots] in their areas?" Patterson asked. "I don't know why we should bear the brunt."

Despite the complaints, Senate President Miller said he sees no evidence to suggest that any groundswell of opposition to slots has developed in Prince George's County.

He said most of the people he talks to tell him they want slots because of the money the devices will generate to improve public schools in Maryland.

"It's really a no-brainer," Miller said.

Full casinos

The debate about expanding gambling in Prince George's is clouded in part because of a strong push by some political figures to move from slots-only establishments to full "destination resort casinos" -- with table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette.

Ehrlich has said he won't accept a bill that includes full casinos.

But some Prince George's legislators say they prefer full-scale casinos -- at a venue such as National Harbor -- because they believe those would cater to more upscale gamblers, generate more jobs and create more economic development opportunities. They molded the Senate bill to steer gambling to National Harbor rather than Rosecroft.

U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat and one of the chief proponents of full casinos, said they would serve the county far better than "slot barns."

"What we're saying is, if we can't have a high-end product with local control, then maybe we don't need gaming at all," Wynn said.

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