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Casino boosters unleash radio ads

ANNAPOLIS — Advocates for a National Harbor casino are trying to drum up support in the Baltimore area by using an expensive radio advertising campaign that touts the casino as a job creator for out-of-work Marylanders.

The Washington, D.C. Building Trades Council – in conjunction with Baltimore public relations firm Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs LLC – is behind the ads, which claim the casino could create 5,700 “permanent union jobs” and about 2,000 temporary construction jobs.

“Job growth has stalled in America,” the ad begins, adding that unemployment is on the rise in Maryland. “But there is something the state can do.”

The ads, which began to air on Baltimore radio late last week, are running as a work group considering expanded gambling in Maryland prepares to meet for the final time Wednesday.

The group could recommend that Gov. Martin O’Malley call a special session of the legislature to authorize a sixth casino, legalize table games and shift the responsibility of buying slot machines to casino operators in conjunction with lowering the tax rate on slots.

The radio ads are a final effort to convince the work group and the General Assembly to pass legislation that would lead to a voter referendum to expand gambling.

“It’s costing a good bit of money, but we feel it’s worth it,” said Mark A. Coles, the trades council’s lobbyist, referring to the ad campaign. “It’s money well spent.”

Coles declined to provide a dollar amount for the ad campaign and deferred further comments to Vance Ayres, the trades council’s executive secretary and treasurer, who was traveling and could not be reached.

State House aides said Tuesday that the gambling work group’s negotiations were still in progress, but that members could be close to agreeing on a lower tax rate for slots, the issue that appears stickiest among the group’s 11 members.

The work group will meet behind closed doors at 10 a.m. Wednesday and may begin a 1 p.m. public meeting by presenting already-agreed-upon recommendations to expand the state’s 5-year-old gambling program.

That would be fine with Coles, who said Baltimore was being targeted with radio ads because there was “some resistance from Baltimore legislators.”

Baltimore lawmakers had some of their concerns addressed when MGM Resorts International Inc., operator of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, announced last week that it would like to build a casino at the sprawling Prince George’s County development on the banks of the Potomac River.

Some legislators feared that, if National Harbor was approved as a casino site, Caesars Entertainment Corp. might cancel plans to build a Baltimore casino in favor of building at National Harbor.

That fear seems to have been allayed, but Coles also said David S. Cordish, chairman of Maryland Live casino developer The Cordish Cos., had given Baltimore-area voters the false impression that a casino at National Harbor would spell doom for the state’s gambling program.

Yet another in a growing pile of gambling studies – this one commissioned by MGM and released Tuesday – said that an $800 million resort casino with 4,000 slot machines and 250 table games could generate $312 million for the state, assuming a 52 percent tax rate on slot machines and a 10 percent rate on table games, such as black jack and roulette.

The study, completed by Las Vegas-based Union Gaming Analytics LLC, predicts that 70 percent of the National Harbor casino’s customers would come from outside Maryland. It also said that Cordish’s Maryland Live casino would net a greater profit because of table games, a conclusion also reached in a study completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers and state fiscal analysts.

Cordish and other representatives of The Cordish Cos. have said that a National Harbor casino could cut into their market by 40 percent, and that the state ought to wait until the five already-approved casinos have a longer operating history before authorizing additional facilities.

The radio ad specifically mentions Cordish’s opposition, which Coles said is misplaced.

“We just look at it from the standpoint that David Cordish is a billionaire, he has a job,” Coles said. He said the ads were meant to “put the focus back on private jobs.”

Neither Cordish nor the company’s president of gaming, Joseph Weinberg, could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Cordish has previously said that it didn’t make political sense to lower the tax rate on casino operators after the state just raised taxes on individuals earning more than $100,000 annually and couples earning more than $150,000.

A legislative aide said constituents in Baltimore started calling Tuesday to say postcards were being delivered to their homes saying that lawmakers were considering lowering the tax rate on wealthy casino operators, but the aide did not know who was sending the mailings.

Coles, though, said the most important point in the debate should be that jobs would be created if lawmakers approved a casino in Prince George’s County.

“We’re not talking about Walmart jobs,” he said. “These are family-supporting jobs. … This is a great prospect to generate revenue and put people back to work. We don’t see any reason why this should be held up in the legislature.”