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Harford's Craig says riverboat casino could cover teacher pensions, other education costs

Harford County Executive David Craig told a state panel studying gaming expansion he thinks a riverboat casino would help the county offset the steep cost of teacher pensions and other rising education costs in the county.

Testifying in Annapolis Tuesday afternoon Craig asked members of the State Work Group to Study Gaming Expansion to consider expanding gaming to Harford County, including a possible referendum to allow table games, and recommended legislation be considered next year instead of being taken up in a special session, according to a transcript of the testimony released by his office.

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"Harford County voters supported the 2008 slots referendum by almost [two to one], and I am confident that given the potential benefits to county revenues, that they would be in favor of at the very least exploring the possibility of a casino in the county in one form or another," Craig said in his testimony.

He said what a successful casino offers is something unique, and a riverboat casino would be worthwhile to consider for Harford County.

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"Such casinos have been highly successful in towns and cities along the Mississippi River and on the Gulf Coast. A riverboat is also mobile, which means that it could even be shared with other areas of the state," Craig said.

According to his spokesman, the county executive waited some five hours to speak to the panel, which was appointed at the conclusion of last month's special session of the Maryland General Assembly, as lawmakers and the governor sought to break an impasse over gambling expansion into Prince George's County that had torpedoed passage of the state budget in the regular legislative session.

Craig was not available for comment following his testimony.

The state's recent decision to shift teacher pension costs to the counties has "severely hampered" Harford's ability to fund capital costs and salary increases for the education system, he told the state panel.

"You don't just find $8 million by lifting up the couch cushions," Craig said, adding the legislation should specify that all local impact grant revenue from the gaming facility be allocated to Harford County government, which must then appropriate all the funds to the Board of Education.

He told the group Harford voters are very likely to support having some type of gambling, and that such a facility would only help boost tourism in the region.

Hollywood Casino in Perryville, just across the Susquehanna River from Harford in Cecil County, opened in 2010.

Craig said Delaware Park, despite being only 27 miles from Perryville, saw revenues rise slightly after Hollywood Casino opened, so gamblers could be encouraged to take a "weekend getaway" by visiting both Hollywood Casino and a casino in Harford.

"Harford County voters supported the 2008 slots referendum by almost [two to one], and I am confident that given the potential benefits to county revenues, that they would be in favor of at the very least exploring the possibility of a casino in the county in one form or another," Craig said. "Having two casinos within close proximity will turn the Upper Chesapeake region into a tourist destination."

The state should also keep in mind that other counties could have the same idea, he said.

"I also advise the work group to carefully consider the idea that there may be other counties or contiguous groupings of counties in the state who would like the opportunity to recoup some of their losses from unfunded state mandates by asking their voters to approve gaming facilities in their jurisdictions," he said.

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