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P.G. residents split over gambling as election nears

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Photo - Slot machines (Getty Images)
Slot machines (Getty Images)
Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

Prince George's County residents are divided over adding a new casino, reflecting statewide polls that forecast a tight race.

For Thurman Jones, a 56-year-old from Seat Pleasant, the choice is clear. Jones spent hours on Sunday driving around the county placing "Yes on 7" signs along highways.

"The number one reason is jobs," he said. "People are going to gamble anyway -- why not spend that money in Prince George's County?"

If Question 7 passes on Tuesday, a new casino would come to the county while table games and round-the-clock operation would be allowed at casinos statewide. Prince George's voters must approve the ballot question for the casino to be built.

Others are not as convinced. Forestville resident Dominique Wood, 19, said more gambling would not provide the quick education fix supporters have been pushing.

"Why are they putting more of our money in gambling?" she said. "We're already in debt. If you want to focus on the schools, focus on the schools."

State budget analysts have said that money put in the state's Education Trust Fund would increase by $174.5 million by fiscal 2017 thanks to gambling profits if expansion passes, but they also project that the state would reduce the amount of money spent on education from the state's general fund. The uncertainty over how much more money will go toward education spending is a major flashpoint in the Question 7 debate.

"The biggest thing that tees me off is the money going for schools," said 62-year-old Mitchellville resident Allen Adams. "It's not guaranteed. I'm not sure it will even go to schools."

That being said, Adams voted early -- and he voted for Question 7. He wasn't happy about it, he said, but the potential for new jobs and the prestige a luxury casino would bring to the county were too much to pass up.

"It's been a long time since P.G. was in the spotlight," he said.

The new casino, expected to be an $800 million luxury casino built at National Harbor though the location would be open for bid, would not be built if Prince George's residents vote the measure down. An independent survey released Oct. 17 by Clarity Campaign Labs showed that 47 percent of county voters support gambling expansion, while 35 percent oppose it.

Statewide polls have been less optimistic for Question 7 supporters. A Baltimore Sun poll released Oct. 27 showed voters opposing gambling expansion 54 percent to 39 percent, while a Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll released Sept. 26 found voters opposing expansion 46 percent to 45 percent.

That division has spread online. Supporters and opponents have taken to antagonizing each campaign's Facebook pages, with both the Vote for 7 and Vote No on 7 pages receiving more than a dozen negative comments this past weekend.

For residents like Kayla Johnson, though, uncertainty can be just as strong as vitriol. While the 16-year-old student from Bowie can't yet vote, she said the budget cuts and a massive paper shortage at her school make her just as invested in the outcome.

"It's all right as long as the money's really going toward education," Johnson said. "But do we really have to go to gambling to fund schools?"

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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