By Barry Rascovar
Money may not buy happiness, as the saying goes, but it is buying developers unprecedented influence that greatly diminishes the role of elected leaders.
This is a national trend. The Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, billionaire political developers, are the most prominent exponents of throwing incredible sums behind Republicans in races from president to state legislature.
In Maryland, the prime culprit is Penn National Gaming, an enormously profitable corporation that stops at nothing to get its way — even if it may not be in the state’s best interest.
The casino developer wants to defeat Maryland’s gambling referendum. It could spend an astounding $40 million to get the result it wants.
Penn National’s efforts are aimed at protecting its crown jewel at Charles Town, W.Va., which today is the only casino near greater Washington with full-scale gambling.
What does Maryland get if Penn National wins? Absolutely nothing.
Indeed, the state winds up with less than nothing: Some $200 million in annual state revenue tied to expanded gambling would evaporate. That could mean tax increases or spending cuts down the road.
Penn National isn’t subtle. It is flooding TV, radio and websites with ads that are misleading and deceitful — or as Gov. Martin O’Malley calls them, “falsehoods and lies.”
Counter-advertising from those seeking to build a casino in Prince George’s County and gain the right to offer table games in Maryland can’t keep up with this tsunami of negative propaganda.
Now comes word of a potential deal between Penn National and the Cordish Cos., operator of the huge slots casino at Arundel Mills, to join forces there.
What a coup for Penn National, which would dominate mid-Atlantic gambling with the two biggest and most profitable casinos. Competition would flee the state.
Serious Washington-area gamblers would have to visit Charles Town if they wanted to play table games, preserving Penn National’s monopoly on those profitable wagers.
Penn National’s influence in the state capital would soar as it becomes known as the company that spent a fortune to defeat ruling Democrats on the gambling referendum.
Who in Annapolis would have the courage to oppose Penn National the next time?
This situation is the result of years of timidity by Maryland political leaders on gambling issues. Now they may have lost control.
O’Malley’s namby-pamby remarks earlier this week about shelving further gambling discussions if the referendum loses typifies his lukewarm interest. Legislators have followed his lead.
Then on Wednesday the governor suddenly erupted against Penn National’s “false and baseless” commercials. He called the ads’ allegations “total crap, hogwash, a bunch of West Virginia casino hooey.”
If that anger is followed up with effective and coordinated messaging to voters, O’Malley may yet rescue the gambling referendum. But let’s face it: His real interest is in another ballot question on same-sex marriage and the presidential race.
With few political leaders sticking their necks out on the gambling vote, the public is getting little guidance — except for Penn National’s hostile ads.
These commercials feed off the public’s skepticism about politicians: Their promises mean nothing; they won’t really spend gambling proceeds on education; they can’t be trusted.
If Penn National proves victorious, it will encourage other moneyed interests to petition to referendum laws they find abhorrent — and then pour millions more into ads accusing elected officials of hoodwinking the public.
It’s already happening in Baltimore County.
Three major developers there have launched harsh, negative referendum drives to overturn County Council zoning decisions. This follows months of nasty confrontations and costly propaganda campaigns.
If they succeed, the developers will freeze all zoning changes in two councilmanic districts until a referendum in 2014. That would leave planners, communities and businesses in an unprecedented state of confusion and uncertainty. Economic development could stall.
The Cordish Cos. is behind one of the drives by out-of-state petition-gatherers. It wants to quash the $200 million conversion of a vacant Middle River depot that would feature a super-sized Wal-Mart. Cordish owns a competing shopping center nearby.
Meanwhile, two other real estate moguls have waged a costly and unpleasant campaign to kill the $140 million conversion of an Owings Mills cup manufacturing plant into a retail complex with a Wegmans supermarket. That project might draw business from their projects at the Owings Mills Mall and at a nearby mass-transit station.
Petition-gatherers are trying to sign up 58,000 county residents for a 2014 referendum, with the out-of-state company charging the developers $5 a signature — pocket change for them.
Top local leaders have failed to step into what could be a debacle for Baltimore County. They don’t want to offend powerful developers who contribute mightily to their campaigns.
Yet much is at stake. If disgruntled developers can paralyze the county’s growth plans, they will have the upper hand over elected officials. It will prove that rich developers can spend their way to political success.
They will have hijacked the zoning process and rendered county officials toothless.
When politicians in Maryland run for cover on hot-button issues, they leave a void eagerly filled by greedy, moneyed interests. This could change the face of government — and not for the better.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and communications consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.