BY TIM PRUDENTE, PUBLISHED IN THE CAPITAL GAZETTE: NOVEMBER 7
Question 7 appears to have passed by a slim margin Tuesday night.
With about 90 percent of the state’s precincts reporting at press time, the controversial measure to expand gaming in Maryland was favored 52 percent to 48 percent.
A majority of Anne Arundel County voters opposed the measure, about 56 percent, while nearly 60 percent of voters in Prince George’s County supported Question 7.
The measure must pass both statewide and in Prince George’s County for a casino to be approved for that county and for the authorization of 24-hour gambling and Las Vegas-style table games, such as blackjack.
Final results were not available from all precincts in Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore and Howard counties.
“We are disappointed in the results tonight, and continue to believe that the taxpayers in Maryland deserve a better deal,” said Kevin McLaughlin, spokesman for the opposition group Get the Facts — Vote No On 7.
Still, with such a close vote, the final outcome could depend on absentee ballots, which won’t be counted until later in the week.
But no matter the results, both sides have promised the fight won’t rest after Tuesday.
A slots opponent and former Prince George’s County councilman has filed a lawsuit alleging the wording of the ballot measure was unconstitutional.
And supporters of efforts to expand the state’s gaming industry have pledged to continue to seek approval for 24-hour gambling and table games if the measure is overturned.
“You can’t give up. You can never give up,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “It’s about competition with the sister states. They’re going to continue to push for table games, it means so much to attract high rollers.”
Miller conceded that if Question 7 were to fail, the measure won’t come back to voters until 2014.
But slots opponents are working now to defeat Question 7 in the courts.
Thomas Dernoga, a slots opponent and former Prince George’s County councilman, filed a lawsuit last week alleging the wording of the ballot question violates state law.
“If Question 7 passes, I expect to be in the courts very soon,” Dernoga said.
Dernoga said the ballot question is worded to require that a majority of registered Maryland voters must approve Question 7 for the law to take affect. That could be different from a majority of people who actually vote on the specific question.
Voters inevitably skip questions, especially considering Tuesday’s ballot contained seven state questions.
State officials have adopted a “common sense” reading of the ballot question. But Dernoga said the language should be interpreted exactly.
“We have serious reservations about the constitutionality of the process,” McLaughlin said. “Today’s vote fell far short of a majority of qualified voters. A lawsuit has been filed to this end, on behalf of the citizens of Maryland, and we intend to explore all of our legal avenues as well.”
The lawsuit was filed Friday in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. State officials have declined to comment.
It’s no surprise local voters opposed Question 7. Many Anne Arundel County residents voiced concerns that a Prince George’s casino would shunt millions of dollars in revenues away from the Maryland Live! casino in Hanover.
If the measure passes, Maryland Live! officials said they could begin 24-hour gambling in about a month, pending approval from state regulators. They hope to open table games by early spring.
The ballot question would also increase the total number of slot machines allowed in the state from 15,000 to 16,500. A Prince George’s casino would be allowed to operate up to 3,000 slot machines, but a casino cannot open in that county until July 2016, according to the law. Table games would be taxed at 20 percent because of the higher overhead involved.
The measure reduces the 67 percent tax rate on profits earned from slots at already-approved casinos. Taxes on slots proceeds in Anne Arundel would be set at 51 percent. And the measure would hold harmless Maryland Live! from decreased revenues associated with the opening of the Prince George’s casino. Portions of revenues from a Prince George’s casino would offset the loss.
But don’t expect the issue to be settled soon.
Such a close vote opens the door for additional lawsuits and haggling by the deep-pocketed casino interests that have millions of dollars riding on the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. The most recent campaign finance reports show ad spending has exceeded $80 million in the months leading up to the election.