11/02/2010 10:00AM

Critical casino vote in Maryland


Voters in Anne Arundel County in Maryland will go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to overturn zoning approvals for a casino at a mall near Laurel Park.

The ballot vote will likely determine whether the Cordish Cos. can go ahead with the billion-dollar casino project, which has been approved for 4,750 slot machines. The measure was added to the ballot through a petition drive led by groups funded by MI Developments Inc., the company that owns Laurel Park and its sister track, Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore.

The Cordish Cos. and MI Developments have waged aggressive campaigns in support and opposition to the project. Last week, the president of Laurel Park said that the track would close if the casino opened.

If the zoning approvals are overturned, MI Developments and Cordish would probably continue to spar over the single casino license available for Anne Arundel County, with the possibility that the state would reopen bidding for the license. That result is supported by the state’s racing industry and MI Developments, which earlier this year sold a 50 percent share in its Maryland operations to Penn National Gaming Inc., a huge casino operator that already has a casino license in Maryland.

Under the law authorizing casinos in Maryland, the racing industry would receive up to $100 million in subsidies from casinos in the state, regardless of their location or operator. The law directs 75 percent of that subsidy to purses and 25 percent to a capital-improvement fund for the state’s racetracks. Laurel and Pimlico are the only Thoroughbred tracks in the state.

Despite that provision, racing industry officials in Maryland have contended that the Cordish casino would have a debilitating impact on the state’s racing industry. They have also contended that voters who authorized casinos in the state were under the impression that the casinos would be limited to existing racing facilities, although the law also specifically reserved licenses for non-racing facilities.

In 2009, MI Developments applied for the sole license available for Anne Arundel County through its former subsidiary, Magna Entertainment, but the application was tossed out when the company failed to include a $28.5 million licensing fee, as required by law.

The Anne Arundel vote is one of several election-day measures that could impact horseracing. In Kentucky, the election of representatives for state government could have an impact on the state racing industry’s quest to add slots and other casino games. Expanded gambling at racetracks in Kentucky has principally been supported by Democrats, while Republicans have been in opposition.