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Penn National getting its bucks in a row to battle gaming expansion

The chief financial officer of Penn National Gaming promises the regional casino giant will continue to spend aggressively to defeat a gaming expansion initiative in Maryland.

The company may even set a new benchmark for political spending in Maryland.

The most expensive political campaign in Maryland was the state’s governor’s race in 2006, when candidates and parties spent more than $34 million. Some observers wouldn’t be surprised to see Penn National crack the Maryland campaign spending record all by itself.

In 2008, Penn National spent $37.9 million to defeat an Ohio gaming expansion measure. The race cost a total of $60.8 million.

During a Credit Suisse-sponsored investors meeting this week in conjunction with the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, Penn National CFO Bill Clifford said the company “has ample resources and media air time to support its message.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that Penn National has so far donated $18.1 million to the “Get the Facts” committee that is working to defeat Question 7 on the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, the gaming expansion measure would allow a casino in suburban Prince George’s County that would compete with Penn National’s casino in West Virginia.

MGM Resorts International, which has proposed building a $700 million casino complex in the county’s National Harbor development, has donated $14.6 million to “FOR Maryland Jobs and Growth,” the committee seeking passage of the referendum.

Caesars Entertainment Corp., which announced plans in August to build the $300 million Harrah’s Baltimore casino, donated more than $1 million to the pro-Question 7 effort.

In addition to the casino, Question 7 would allow existing slot machine-only casinos and gaming license holders to offer table games. The measure would also lower the Maryland gaming tax rate, which is an industry-high 67 percent.

Caesars Chairman Gary Loveman, in a meeting with investors this week, said the company benefits regardless of if the question passes.

If Question 7 wins, Caesars would add table games to the project, which would be renamed Horseshoe Baltimore. If it loses, there is less competition.

Penn National officials have said the company is not opposed to casino expansion in Maryland, but they believe a racetrack the company owns near National Harbor is better for a casino. Penn National also operates the Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County, 30 minutes northeast of Baltimore.

A spokesman for Penn National did not return a phone call Friday.

This week, the Baltimore Sun released a poll showing the referendum in trouble, with only 38 percent of respondents in favor.

Spending by MGM Resorts and Penn National has fueled a flood of television advertisements for and against the casino project. On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called the assault on casino expansion by Penn National, “total crap, hogwash (and) a bunch of West Virginia casino hooey.”

O’Malley, a Democrat, supported casino expansion and pushed lawmakers to pass the issue in a special session this summer. At a news conference in Annapolis, he questioned Penn National’s integrity.

O’Malley said Penn National is spending “buckets and buckets of money” to protect the company’s West Virginia casino interests.

“I think it’s sad and pathetic that Penn would be running false ads that would say we are not investing more in education, nothing could be further from the truth,” O’Malley said. The governor also criticized Penn National Chairman Peter Carlino, saying “I would have expected more … but I guess there’s enough money at stake that he has to run these falsehoods,” O’Malley said.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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