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First Click Maryland -- Slots goes back to the ballot

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Friday, March 12, 2010:

The Agenda

Me in dots.jpgIn November 2008, nearly 60 percent of voters in Anne Arundel County approved of a statewide ballot measure authorizing slots in Maryland.

In November 2010, the county's voters, it now appears, will be called upon to determine the fate of Maryland's largest planned casino -- the proposed 4,750-machine facility at Arundel Mills Mall.

The odds of passage this time are a much tougher call.

Anne Arundel slots.jpgAs of Thursday, it appeared that an unlikely coalition of homeowners and racing-industry interests, who want slots at Laurel Park racetrack instead, had succeeded in their effort to force a public vote on a zoning measure needed for the casino to rise in a parking lot outside the mall's food court.

An ongoing review of petition signatures by the county's Board of Elections yielded 19,054 signatures, more than the 18,790 required for a public vote on the zoning measure. Several thousand additional signatures still await review, and the board must certify the count before the ballot measure is official.

In 2008, no one knew for certain where a slots casino would land in Anne Arundel. But most everyone assumed slots would go to Laurel, one of two existing tracks that could have been eligible for a license under the plan approved by voters.

But the bankrupt owners of Laurel failed to pony up $28.5 million for a licensing fee in February 2009. That meant that a proposal by the hard-charging developer David S. Cordish was the only one left on the table in Anne Arundel.

Cordish.jpgIn the pages of Thursday's Post, our colleague Ovetta Wiggins profiles Cordish, the 70-year-old developer who "spent the better part of his career bringing distressed urban areas back to life, building retail and mixed-used developments in desolate parts of Atlantic City, Louisville and Charleston, S.C."

If Cordish has his way in Anne Arundel, the courts will keep the zoning measure from getting to the ballot in November. His company has sued the county elections board, alleging massive fraud in the petition process -- a charge both the board and petition-gatherers say is without merit.

If the public does get a say, there are several factors to keep in mind. First of all, the zoning bill passed by the council is not specific to Arundel Mills mall. It allows slots, in theory at least, at other locations that are zoned in the same category as Arundel Mills. So the way the ballot language is crafted could make a real difference.

Secondly, Laurel is scheduled to be auctioned off well before November. The date has already been pushed back several times and could be again. But the timing and outcome of the sale are relevant.

The Jockey Club, the current operators of the track, poured more than $600,000 into the petition drive, mostly for paid signature-gatherers. Depending on what happens with the sale, that group may or may not be around to help fund the campaign to repeal zoning. The homeowners around the mall have passion, but their pockets are not so deep.

In any case, this episode has the potential to go down as one of the larger setbacks in Maryland's fledgling effort to cash in on casinos.

It seems Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) had it about right Thursday when he said this to reporters: "I suppose what it means is there's going to be second referendum on top of the referendum we've already had and on top of the other delays in implementing slots."

-- John Wagner

News You Should Know

Booze taxes unlikely to increase despite heightened push
"In recent years, Maryland has raised its sales tax, income tax, corporate tax and cigarette tax; added a surcharge called the 'millionaires' tax; and created taxes on electronic bingo, tip jars and even water and septic systems -- the 'flush tax,' writes The Post's Aaron C. Davis. "But lawmakers have not touched alcohol taxes. For 37 years, Maryland's levies on beer and wine have remained unchanged, and its pennies-per-drink charge on hard alcohol has not budged since 1955 -- a testament to the influence of the state's alcohol lobby."

Concerns mount about committee's conduct
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Kullen.jpg"The House Judiciary Committee is under fire from lawmakers and advocates for perceived mistreatment of domestic violence victims and other witnesses who allegedly have been bullied and interrogated during bill hearings," writes The Gazette's Alan Brody. "While the 22-member panel has long been regarded as one of the most probing and unbending in the General Assembly, numerous legislators are concerned that the committee has crossed the line several times this year and is now regarded as an unwelcome venue for members of the public. 'They're out of control,' said Del. Sue Kullen, who chairs the Women Legislators of Maryland, which is known informally as the women's caucus. She pointed to a bill hearing last month on legislation that proposed changing the standard of proof by which a protective order is issued as a prime example of the committee's mistreatment of witnesses."

Lawmakers get creative in search for dollars
"Getting married in Baltimore, divorced in Prince George's County and suing someone across Maryland could soon cost considerably more as state lawmakers get creative in their search for money to support programs for the poor," reports The Baltimore Sun's Julie Bykowicz. "A half-dozen fee increases on court services are moving through the General Assembly at a time when the state is facing its own $2 billion shortfall and has little to give struggling social causes. The most sweeping change - a 50 percent jump in some civil case filing charges - unanimously passed the Senate this week and is being debated by a House of Delegates committee. Other proposals include allowing local governments to impose a $75 surcharge on marriage applications in Baltimore and $70 on divorce petitions in Prince George's County."

Democrats mimic Ehrlich on mock Web site
Thumbnail image for Dem Ehrlich site.JPG"Last week, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) used his Facebook page to ask fans what new features they would like to see on his redesigned Web site, www.bobehrlich.com," reports The Post's Wagner. "Ehrlich has gotten a little more help than he probably wanted from the Maryland Democratic Party. On Thursday morning, the party unveiled an entire Web site, www.bobehrlich.org, that mimics the look of the real thing -- but includes some less flattering information."

Quotables

Scott Brown.jpg"He's no Scott Brown."
-- Tom Russell, campaign manager to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), comparing former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to the newly elected senator from Massachusetts in a talk to about 30 members of the Columbia Democratic Club

"Never before has a candidate done so well by doing so little. Why spoil it by actually running?"
-- Gazette columnist Blair Lee on Ehrlich's undeclared campaign

"This could be a fool's errand for Ehrlich. The Republican may be getting into a battle he cannot win."
-- Gazette columnist Barry Rascovar on Ehrlich's chances


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By John Wagner  |  March 12, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner  
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