State lawmakers gave final approval for a plan to allow a major casino in Prince George’s County, while a plan to open a slot machine venue in Colonial Beach, Va., that would pay revenue to Charles County is alive, but barely.
Shortly before midnight Wednesday, the House of Delegates voted 71-to-58 in favor of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill, which also allows Las Vegas-style table games at the state’s existing casinos and makes adjustments to the tax rate on gambling revenues to compensate casino operators for additional competition and costs.
The Senate, which approved the bill last week, signed off on several amendments from the House early Wednesday.
Maryland’s constitution requires the expansion of gambling to be approved by voters, so the Prince George’s casino will be built only if a majority of county voters support the measure at the polls in November.
As amended by the House, the new gambling is projected to pay an additional $200 million per year to the state’s Education Trust Fund by 2019, according to a state fiscal analysis.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) said the bill was a “win-win” for Maryland that would both raise revenues and create jobs.
But there now could be a fierce ad campaign between MGM Resorts International, which wants to build a casino at National Harbor, and Penn National Gaming, which owns Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and wants to put a casino there, Miller said.
“It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat,” he joked.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) denounced the plan, which he said cut taxes on billionaire casino owners shortly after lawmakers had raised taxes on working Marylanders.
Absent from the bill is any mention of a proposed slot machine parlor off the Virginia coast, but the project could be considered in the future thanks to an amendment that allows the governor, speaker of the House or Senate president to request that a new state commission, created in the bill to oversee the state’s lottery and gambling operations, study and recommend changes to the state’s gambling laws, including whether to permit more casinos.
Charles County lawmakers introduced a bill during the regular legislative session in March to authorize a slots casino at Riverboat on the Potomac, a restaurant in Colonial Beach, Va., that juts out over the Potomac River, which is legally Maryland and Charles County territory per a Colonial-era agreement with Virginia.
Proposed by Virginia company Blueridge Ventures, the casino could eventually house 1,500 slot machines and generate an estimated $42 million for the state and $5.5 million for Charles County.
The casino would draw 91 percent of its clientele from outside of Maryland, according to a company-funded study.
But the proposal has been lost amid debate over the Prince George’s County casino. When lawmakers first reconvened last week, Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) and Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) introduced separate bills to outright authorize the Riverboat casino, but neither made it to a committee hearing.
Both legislators then offered amendments to the governor’s bill, which would have let the commission consider the Colonial Beach proposal in the future.
The Senate committee left the amendment out of its draft of the bill, but the House committee included it after making alterations to allow the commission to recommend any changes to the state’s gambling code.
“It is minor, but by God, I feel like we were able to keep a toe in the doorway,” Jameson said. “There’s nothing in the bill that would prevent us from being able to attempt to move forward with a potential gaming site, but what it does do is keep us from being able to do anything by the November election.”
Since all new casinos must be approved by voters, the soonest a Colonial Beach site could be authorized would be on the 2014 ballot.
Between now and the beginning of the 2013 session, Jameson intends to write a letter to both House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Miller asking that the commission perform a study, similar to the one paid for by Blueridge Ventures, on the feasibility of a slots parlor in Colonial Beach and how it would affect Maryland’s other casinos.
Jameson said she would ask that the study be completed by Dec. 1 of next year, giving lawmakers a month to draft a bill in time for the beginning of the 2014 session, aiming at including it on the ballot that November.
Busch has already indicated that he would be “receptive” to such a study, Jameson said.
“I’m sure there will be some who will holler and scream about there being an additional site, but at least it will give us additional market data as to what the effect would be,” she added.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said he was pleased that a couple of amendments he worked on made it into the final gambling bill.
On one, he collaborated with Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) to secure up to $15 million in annual grant funding for improvements to the Prince George’s County portion of Indian Head Highway, which Wilson said will benefit Charles County residents who travel the highway while commuting to work in Washington, D.C.
Wilson initially wanted the funding earmarked specifically for new overpasses along the highway, but the Maryland Department of Transportation preferred to make the amendment more broad so that upgrades could continue once overpasses had been built, he said
Wilson said he planned on voting against the bill until the road funding was included.
Wilson also worked with Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s) on provisions requiring that minorities be considered when looking for investors in a casino and allowing counties with a casino to set requirements for local and minority business participation in the facility’s construction and operation.
The bill also permits veterans’ organizations like American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts to have up to five pull-tab bingo machines, which look like slots but are different because they have a predetermined number of winners.
The provision does not apply to the nine counties on the Eastern Shore, where veterans groups are allowed to have slot machines, or Montgomery County, which would become the lone county in the state to bar pull-tabs and slots from veterans posts.
Veterans have been pushing for years to get the machines, which they regard as a harmless means to increase fundraising.
“I’m all for it, because it’s amazing the amount of money the posts on the Eastern Shore are able to donate, and they’re getting it through these gambling devices, and if we had them we could do it on this side,” said Raymond “Buddy” Hindle, commander of Harry White Wilmer American Legion Post 82 in La Plata.
Many veterans groups have claimed they need the machines to stay afloat in a down economy, but Hindle said Post 82 has been “very fortunate” to have an active membership that constantly organizes fundraisers like dinners and bingo games to raise revenue.
“Right now we’re doing real well,” but adding five pull-tabs to the post would only let it donate more to outside veterans organizations as well as community groups like the Boy Scouts, Little League baseball and programs for seniors.
The Prince George’s casino will be allowed 3,000 slot machines and cannot open until July 1, 2016, or 30 months after the opening of a planned facility in Baltimore, whichever comes first.
The bill also will let the new Maryland Live! Casino at the Arundel Mills mall in Hanover and the future Baltimore facility to keep as much as 10 percent more of slots revenues once a Prince George’s casino goes online. Baltimore and Hollywood Casino in Perryville also would keep an additional 6 percent of their revenues in exchange for taking ownership of slot machines, which currently are owned or leased by the state; Maryland Live! would keep 8 percent.