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Md. vote puts W.Va. casino on defensive

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Maryland voters sent the state of West Virginia a message Tuesday: They want their money back.

Now West Virginia's largest casino is looking at legal options to fight off new competition from its eastern neighbor.

By 52 percent to 48 percent, Maryland voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing table games in the state and approving construction of a new casino in Prince George's County, near Washington.

Maryland leaders offered the initiative as a way to boost funding for state schools, as well as create up to 2,000 construction and 4,000 casino jobs.

Known as Question 7, the initiative was hotly contested and drew more than $90 million in campaign spending from competing foes in the casino industry.

At odds were casino giants MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming.

Penn National runs the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town. It funneled more than $40 million into the race in an effort to protect business at its West Virginia casino.

MGM, which hopes to build a new casino at National Harbor along the Potomac River, dumped more than $45 million into a campaign for the initiative.

While the casino giants were pulling the strings, their campaigns portrayed the issue as more of a border battle between the two states.

For Maryland Jobs & Schools - a political action committee funded in part by MGM - financed a private study that said the Charles Town casino made more than $1 billion off Maryland residents in the past decade.

If the ballot initiative was rejected, the study said Charles Town would probably siphon another $1.5 billion from the Maryland economy over the next 10 years.

The MGM-funded group went so far as to write a parody of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," for use in its campaign.

"Maryland cash, bring it back, to the state where it comes from," the re-worked chorus said. "Not West Virginia, don't let 'em spin ya. Bring it back, our Maryland cash."

Another ad featured Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and former Baltimore Ravens tackle Jonathan Ogden.

Both said they weren't happy about West Virginia getting the state's money.

 "Question 7 means thousands of jobs and millions for our schools, but these West Virginia casinos want to keep it all for themselves," Rawlings-Blake said as she stood in front of the 6-foot-9-inch Ogden.

"So join us, and vote for Question 7," she said. "And West Virginia, don't make me send Jonathan Ogden over there."

The Penn National-funded Vote No On 7 PAC said Maryland leaders were overselling the claims of school funding and job creation. It said most of the money raised at the casinos would go into the pockets of special interests in the gaming industry.

Kevin McLaughlin, spokesman for Vote No On 7, said the group was disappointed in the results and pledged to fight the matter in court.

"The issue has not been resolved, unfortunately, because we have serious reservations about the constitutionality of the process," McLaughlin said.

The group believes there is a flaw in the way the initiative was set up.

Under Maryland law, the ballot initiative had to be approved by a "majority of qualified voters."

Penn National believes that means it must be approved by a majority of people eligible to vote on Election Day.

Question 7 supporters said it means only that the initiative has to be approved by a majority of those who actually showed up to vote.

The lawsuit has already been filed in Maryland courts. McLaughlin said his group intends "to explore all of our legal avenues."  

But MGM chairman and CEO Jim Murren said Tuesday's vote was a victory for Maryland residents.  

"The people of Maryland have delivered a message: Sorting through an onslaught of dishonesty, voters chose to support progress," Murren said in a statement. "They want good jobs and more money for their kids' schools."

Even before the vote, MGM was preparing designs for an $800 million gaming facility in Prince George's County. Murren said Tuesday the company would now move forward with that construction in earnest.

"We stand ready to compete with all comers for this license and the privilege to bring an MGM resort to National Harbor," he said.

The vote opens a third front in the West Virginia Lottery's struggle to maintain this state's racetrack and table game industry.

West Virginia's two Northern Panhandle casinos have seen their revenues start to fall from the onslaught of new casino openings in Ohio and Pennsylvania over the past year.

The Charles Town casino was still the Lottery's thriving cash cow, doing more business than all other state casinos combined.

In a statement Wednesday, West Virginia Lottery Director John Musgrave said officials would work to maintain business at the Eastern Panhandle casino.

"While it is very early to try to assess the impact of gaming expansion in Maryland on Charles Town, we understand the potential negative impact to our revenue as we have already experienced the effect of gaming competition from other neighboring jurisdictions," Musgrave said.

"The Lottery has and will continue to work closely with our casinos to help sustain business at those locations, and further enhance the excellent venue Charles Town already has to offer its patrons," he said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.

 


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