A handful of area voters got the opportunity last night to dive a bit deeper into the debate surrounding Question 7, which could allow a casino to operate in Prince George's County and bring Vegas-style table games to casinos across the state.
Gathered in a first-floor conference room in the Hyattsville Municipal Building, they were here to consider the two sides of the argument in a manner more thoughtful than what might be available to a typical voter in the midst of one of the most expensive political campaigns waged in Maryland in recent memory.
Arguing in favor of expanded gambling was Brad Frome, deputy chief of staff to Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker.
His argument focused on three projected benefits which a casino in Prince George's County would bring: jobs, and increased local tax revenues and education funding.
Arguing against the proposal was Del. Doyle Niemann (D-District 47), of Mount Rainier.
He argued that expanded gambling in Prince George's County would not bring in the amount of tax revenues which gambling proponents claim and he was also critical of the social cost–the effects of gambling addiction, for instance–which local governments might have to deal with if Question 7 passes.
The debate was moderated by Hyattsville resident Jim Groves. Each side had 20 minutes at the outset to lay out their arguments. That was followed by a town hall-style question and answer session moderated by Groves
Frome opened up the debate by noting the expansion of gambling in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania over the last decade. He said that Marylanders were leaving the state in droves to dance with lady luck.
"The facts on the ground dictate that all of this money was leaving the state," said Frome during his opening statement
Frome then highlighted the National Harbor site, which is being eyed by Baker as a potential site for a new billion dollar MGM casino. Its location, on the edge of the Potomac River, just south of Washington, DC and across the river from Alexandria, made it a perfect location for a glitzy casino, said Frome.
"We're next to the largest tourist destination in the nation," said Frome. "41 Million visitors. We have the potential to have a facility that is a major destination.
But while Frome had earlier bemoaned the fact that Marylanders had to go outside of the state to play table games, he projected that the vast majority of casino customers, between 75 and 80 percent of them, would be out of state tourists.
Frome also stressed the economic benefits which a Prince George's County casino might bring, predicting that the facility would require 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs to operate. Anticipating the argument that the jobs at a casino might be, for whatever reason, undesirable, Frome said that while some casino jobs might not require advanced degrees, they are still jobs.
"For a lot of folks, that job is an opportunity that they didn't have before," said Frome. "For a lot of folks who don't have an education, who don't have a lot in life, that is an opportunity."
Frome also said that the casino would directly and indirectly generate much needed revenue for the county government. Not only would the county see a roughly five-percent local cut of gambling tax revenues, argued Frome, but also the property taxes on the casino site, income tax from casino employees living in the county and increased amusement and hotel tax revenues. As a result, Frome predicted county would see a total of $41.4 million in new tax revenues if the casino moved forward.
"That's the equivalent of raising everybody's property tax rates by 10 percent," said Frome, noting that the county was at or near the limit it can charge for property, income and telecommunications taxes.
Nieman, in his arguments, said that the gambling bill was not a good deal for the state or the county and that the past promises of gambling proponents have fallen short of projections.
"It's just not worth it," said Nieman, who said that the tax revenues would be coming from nearly $590 million in money lost at slots and table games by visitors to the casino. "We talk about these revenues as if the casino's were selling widgets, but it's based on what people lose…the house always wins if you bet long enough."
Nieman said that the average gambler walks out of a casino with half of the money they brought into it.
Nieman also argued that the county would be better served by devoting resources to attracting government jobs and development around area Metro stations and a more robust effort to attract high-skilled private sector jobs to the county, instead of efforts to attract a casino.
"What kind of economic development do we want? We're now pulling money out of the economy where it is spent in different ways and putting it into an industry that really produces no value, whose only purpose is that we can tax it," said Nieman after the debate.
Niemann, during the debate, revealed that his father was a problem gambler. While his family never lost the farm on a bet, he did fear the impact that an increase in gambling addiction-related problems like foreclosures and crime which a casino in Prince George's might bring.
"One of the things that concerns me about the bill is the 24 hour gambling," said Nieman. "At four in the morning, you are not getting tourists to come in. You're getting locals. You don't have an opportunity to go home at 2 a.m. and think about all the money you've lost."
Nieman was also critical of how much power the gambling industry might come to hold in Maryland and Prince George's County if the bill passed, saying that the tax revenues would essentially force government officials to bend to the will of the casinos on some policy matters.
"The more we go down this path, the more we go down this path," said Nieman. "Because there is so much money involved."