By Sam Smith
In the battle for expanded casino gambling, they brought out the big political guns Thursday to persuade hundreds of residents of the large Leisure World retirement community in Montgomery County that ads against Question 7 ads are misleading and dishonest.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Sen. Roger Manno -- all Democrats -- told the seniors that building a world-class casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County will have positive impacts on the state's economy and education funding.
“We may not change your minds,” Brown said. “But nobody should leave this room today without having the facts and that’s what we are here to do, to dispel a lot of the myths that have been promoted to try to oppose Question 7.”
Opponents of Question 7 have spent over $33 million on advertising this election, largely funded by Penn National Gaming which operates the Charles Town, W. Va. casino. Many of the ads that have aired on television and radio have claimed that the revenues going into the Education Trust Fund will not bring in added money for education.
Countering comptroller’s argument
Comptroller Peter Franchot is the highest ranking state official speaking out against the gambling initiative. Franchot is quoted in one TV commercial as saying: “It is a lie to say that the existing slots program or the new casino that’s proposed in Question 7 will bring in new education dollars.”
When a resident asked about Franchot’s statements, Leggett said look at the state’s education spending record, which has increased steadily over the past decade.
“Peter is a good friend of mine and has been for many years. But frankly, I think he is wrong,” Leggett said. “Look at the record. This state has spent money that we didn’t even have for education.”
Manno, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee, read to the room the Department of Legislative Services breakdown of the funding allocation.
According the Maryland Lottery Commission, $200 million has already been generated to the Education Trust Fund from the slot machine authorization in 2008 and $199 million will flow into the education trust fund once the new gambling bill is fully implemented.
According to the Department of Legislative Services, $123 million of that will come directly from the passage of the bill. When it is fully phased in it is projected that $753 million will come from casinos. (Opponents point out that much of the money will come from adding table games to all the casinos, not just new casino.)
Fifty percent of Baltimore City’s share of $22 million from the expansion will be used to fund school construction projects.
Money will go to education
The Democrats said other ads have misled voters claiming that the state robbed $350 million out of the trust fund to use for general funds. Although $350 million was taken out of the ETF, it was later replaced in a transfer from the state reserve fund.
“If the morality of this is something that you object to, I understand but do not accept these commercials,” Leggett said. “Do not accept this idea that there is no ability for us to spend this money on education. That’s wrong. Do not be a sucker.”
“Education will get its appropriate slice in any situation. Whether it is mandated or not, it will get it,” he said.
Leggett said the ads stem from West Virginia’s gambling industry that will lose not only Maryland customers but those from Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia as well. Leggett said West Virginia’s biggest concern is authorization of tables games. That gives Maryland residents absolutely no need to go to Charles Town since Maryland will have the full range of gambling opportunities.
“West Virginia would be happy to have us simply become another slot parlor,” Leggett said.
“They do not want you to have a full array of games that attract tourists, that attract big dollars in the table games. That’s why they are fighting it.”
Is the Maryland market big enough for another casino?
MGM Resorts International is slotted to run the casino at National Harbor. The company’s executive vice president, Phyllis James, said that MGM’s own analysts expect that 70% of the casino's business is expected to come from out-of-state or out-of-country.
“Tourists are not the only people that come to Washington D.C. You have diplomats and elected officials that come from all over the world that come there and bring their friends and bring their families,” James said.
James added the resort will be able to sustain well-paying jobs because MGM’s resorts offer more than just gambling. Most resorts consist of hotels, restaurants and high-end shopping. They also offer entertainment, such as shows, concerts, fights, as well as meeting space and conference rooms.
“We’re talking about a full-scale destination resort,” James said. “We believe that National Harbor is a destination type location and we think we can improve upon that destination location.”
Brown mentioned the study of the gaming market by the Department of Legislative Services and consultant Princewaterhouse Coopers that found there is room in the Maryland market for an additional casino. The bill passed by the legislature gives existing facilities a tax break to make up for the potential loss of revenue -- another feature opponents bring up.
Maryland not trying to become casino economy
One resident expressed concern about the troubles of gambling economies like Nevada, West Virginia and New Jersey. Brown said that Maryland is not trying to be like any other state but simply wants to improve an already nationally recognized school system.
“What we are undertaking to do is take the best school system in the country and make it the best school system in the world,” Brown said.
Manno also said this helps the state further the advancement of the school system while the state still has to find $600 million in cuts to balance the budget. Manno said although he doesn't like gambling personally, he supports Question 7 and would do “anything before he had to cut Medicaid.”