Penn National-backed group makes anti-casino pitch

Casino and Gambling IndustryElectionsPoliticsLifestyle and LeisureEconomy, Business and FinancePrince George's CountyPenn National Gaming

A group backed by Penn National Gaming, the owner of Hollywood Casino in Perryville and Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia, launched a new TV ad Thursday in its defeat to persuade voters to head off an expansion of gambling in Maryland.

The group Get The Facts Vote No On 7 is calling its ad questioning the benefits of legislation, passed earlier this month during a special session of the General Assembly, "Great Deal?" Among other things, it charges that the legislature's decision to allow a new casino in Prince George's County and to permit table games at already licensed casinos could end up yielding no additional money for education -- the legislature's stated purpose for expanding gambling.

The "facts," as the group presents them, do not appear to be demonstrably false. However, they are presented with a healthy dose of "spin" aimed at discrediting the bid by the owners of National Harbor  to land a casino license for their riverfront site.  While the legislation opens the door to bids from both National Harbor and Penn National's Rosecroft Raceway, Penn contends the deck has been stacked to favor National Harbor. It's not a far-fetched concern because Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and some key lawmakers have hardly been subtle about their preference for National Harbor.

Among the charges made by the "No on 7" folks:

--That Maryland officials have not conducted "transparent" negotiations with casino operators. There were, in fact, many private meetings involving top legislators and all of the present and potential casino operators during the process of hammering out a bill. If those meetings had been "transparent," it would have been quite a surprise.

--The state has enacted deep tax cuts for casino operators shortly after raising them on working families. True in a way, as long as it's understood that families making $150,000 or more a year -- the threshold to be affected by the income tax increases adopted in May -- work too. Some of the tax reduction for casino owners is indeed more money in their pockets, but some parts of the decrease are compensation for transferring ownership of slot machines from the state to the casino operators. The state is projecting that -- rate cuts notwithstanding -- it will collect more revenue if the referendum measure passes.

--Maryland residents should remain skeptical of claims that a new casino will means more jobs for Marylanders. Absolutely true. However, a prudent Marylander will remain skeptical of all ad claims made by either side.

--There is no guarantee the money earmarked in the bill will increase overall funding for schools. True enough, though the use of the word "loophole" to describe that fact is questionable. Quite simply, the governor and the General Assembly have the flexibility to move money around between special funds and the general fund in the budget each year. That's not a loophole. That's the state Constitution.

The ad comes with a dose of irony. Though sponsored by a group backed by a casino company, it uses the term "expanded gambling" when trying to defeat a ballot proposition. In virtuallly all other contexts, casino companies avoid the term "gambling" and prefer the more genteel "gaming." The ad also makes the point that legislators were negotiating with "out-of-state" companies -- as if that made the talks especially sinister. Penn National is based in Wyomissing, Pa.

National Harbor is not a defenseless victim.  A group backed  by its developers is up on the air with an ad campaign -- with questionable assertions of its own -- urging a yes vote on Question 7.

 Howard Libit, a spokesman for the National Harbor-backed For Maryland Jobs and Schools campaign, accused Penn National of attempting to protect its Charles Town casino with a “misinformation campaign.”

“This is a West Virginia-funded effort to deceive Marylanders and deprive them of the thousands of jobs and millions for our schools that a new world-class resort casino would bring to the state," Libit said. "It comes from the same group that has been sued in Maryland and Ohio for making false claims.  Maryland voters should expect that they will say and do anything over the next 68 days to protect their casino in West Virginia.”

Maryland voters will be seeing a lot of this back-and-forth on their way to the election. The one thing they can be sure of is that behind every ad they see there is likely to be a deep-pocketed special interest with a lot riding on the outcome of the vote.

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