High stakes for public in slots court case
Ten days from now, a spectacular game of high-stakes poker commences in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake not just for the parties embroiled in this bitter dispute but for Maryland taxpayers, too.
Lawyers are battling over the right of Anne Arundel County voters to determine if a 4,700-machine slots facility should be built next to the enormously popular Arundel Mills mall.
Six law firms hired by the Cordish Cos., which won the slots license, allege all sorts of hanky-panky by petition gatherers. They even claim the referendum drive violates the state constitution.
On the other side, community groups adamantly opposed to a slots facility near the mall and the Maryland Jockey Club are accusing Cordish of dirty tricks and verboten schemes.
The petitioners take the traditional NIMBY approach: They don't want a large development in their backyard, particularly a slots hall sure to draw additional waves of traffic on top of the 14 million people who already visit Arundel Mills each year.
They also say a slots emporium will attract crime, though similar sites haven't experienced much of a problem.
Thanks to financial support from the Jockey Club which eventually wants slots for itself at Laurel Park just 13 miles away and the determination of community petitioners, the referendum drive proved a huge success.
Record blizzards couldn't stop them. The petitioners needed more than 18,000 signatures; they got 40,000, of which nearly 23,000 were deemed valid by the county election board after a detailed review of 5,000 petition sheets. Many of the signatures were collected by paid petition gatherers hired by the Jockey Club.
Now the question becomes: Will Judge Ronald Silkworth find fatal legal flaws in the way signatures were gathered and validated? Or will he dismiss developer David Cordish's objections and allow the November referendum vote?
The trial begins May 24 in Annapolis. It could be a headline-grabbing affair lasting several weeks.
Yet even at the trial's conclusion, we won't know the ultimate outcome. Judge Silkworth's ruling is certain to be appealed.
Then the scene will shift down the road about a mile to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which will be the final arbiter of these conflicting allegations.
Maryland's highest appeals court has set unusually stringent requirements for referendum drives. Petition signers can be disqualified if they leave out their middle initial, for instance, or fail to include their full street address as listed on their voter registration card.
Appellate judges might simply support the county election board. Or the top appeals court could revisit its prior decision on collecting and certifying referendum signatures. It all depends on how broadly or narrowly the appeals court views this case when it lands on its docket this summer.
There's plenty at stake. Cordish envisions a $1 billion entertainment complex centered on an opulent slots hall. The developer thinks this could be the most profitable gaming location on the East Coast.
The Jockey Club, meanwhile, wants to block slots unless they are situated at Laurel Park. Community groups are determined to keep slots away from their neighborhoods. Other opponents want to keep the gambling machines out of Anne Arundel County entirely.
That's where state taxpayers could take a financial bath. If there's no Anne Arundel slots site, the state loses out on a quarter-billion dollars a year in new revenue. That would make it even more difficult for the next governor to avoid major tax increases.
A slotless Anne Arundel County also would put enormous pressure on the next county executive either to make painfully deep cuts in county government payroll and programs or take the risky step of hiking local fees and taxes in a Republican-leaning jurisdiction that is allergic to tax increases.
So there's much at stake as the two sides prepare for their day in court.
Petition gatherers feel their right to legally protest unpopular zoning decisions is under attack.
If the courts keep the referendum question on the ballot, the political campaign on both sides will be intense. Cordish has the resources to mount an expensive anti-referendum drive.
So does the other side. The new co-owners of Laurel, MI Developments of Canada and especially Penn National Gaming, are flush with cash.
It could be an uphill fight for Cordish. Getting the courts to throw out a successful petition drive that's already certified by the local and state election boards won't be easy.
Besides, public sentiment is harshly negative toward government these days. Overturning the County Council's zoning decision on slots is an easy way for voters to show their disgust.
The conservative nature of Anne Arundel County voters also favors petitioners, who have been aided by anti-gambling religious leaders.
The image of a big developer trying to push aside grass-roots protesters doesn't help Cordish, either.
Petitioners feel strongly that the integrity of their communities is at stake. They are protecting their homes from what they regard as a hostile neighborhood invasion. You don't get much more motivated than that.
So be prepared for some surprising twists and turns when the trial commences. It could be the start of a six-month legal and political saga that affects us all.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and communications consultant. His e-mail address is email@example.com.