COLLEGE PARK – The contentious referendum to expand gambling was approved Tuesday night by a narrow margin, with 52 percent voting in favor and 48 percent against.
The vote is an end to the bitter ad battle among casino companies that drew $92.2 million in contributions – the most expensive campaign in state history.
Expanded gaming passed by a much closer margin than the 2008 question to legalize slots, which passed 59 percent to 41 percent.
Absentee ballots have not yet been counted.
Question 7 will allow casinos to operate 24/7, add table games and provide for a sixth casino to be built in Prince George’s County, where 59 percent of voters favored the measure.
Campaigns on both sides spent millions trying to convince voters that the new tax revenue either will or will not go towards education.
Voters on Tuesday had varying opinions on where the money would go. Some said they supported the measure because the money would go to schools.
“If it even brings in one extra dollar for education, then I’m for it,” said Jim Kramer of Hampstead.
Others seemed to support the issue because it raises funds for the state, even if everything doesn’t go to education.
“I understand the discussion that the money won’t go to schools,” said 58-year-old Cathie Wiggins of Silver Spring. “But the money will be used within the state.”
And some were against the measure because they thought money would not benefit education.
“They really didn’t get any more education money out of gambling in the past. They rerouted everything just like they always do,” said Denise Waynick, of Hampstead.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other referendum supporters said the expansion of gambling in the state will bring in more money for public schools.
Without that money, O’Malley and Baker said finding funds for education could become more difficult.
“If we do not approve Question 7, if instead we choose to have those Maryland dollars going to schools in West Virginia, we’ll have to make up those dollars or do without here at home,” O’Malley said Tuesday morning, at a polling place at Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro.
On the other side, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot argued that the money produced from casinos will create no net benefit to schools. He also said late Tuesday night that regardless of the outcome of the election, the amount of money spent by out of state casinos on campaigns troubles him.
“Clearly the state of Maryland is going to need reform of its political process,” Franchot said.
Combined, companies involved in the referendum battle contributed about $15.80 for every person in Maryland, totaling $92.2 million, more than the past three gubernatorial elections combined.
Three companies provided the bulk of financing for proponents of Question 7. MGM Resorts International has contributed $40.8 million to For Maryland Jobs & Schools, the main committee in favor of expansion. MGM would be positioned to run the casino at National Harbor.
Other big contributors included CBAC Gaming (led by Caesars Entertainment) and The Peterson Companies. CBAC, which plans to open Harrah’s Baltimore Casino in mid-2014 has contributed $4.8 million. The Peterson Companies, developers of National Harbor, have contributed $4.2 million.
On the other side Penn National Gaming, sole contributor to the anti-expansion Get The Facts – Vote No On 7 committee, has contributed $42 million. Experts have said Penn National is interested in protecting its casino in West Virginia, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
There is a possibility the results of the referendum could be overturned. Former Prince George’s County Councilman Thomas Dernoga filed a lawsuit Friday questioning the standard required for Question 7 to pass. He is arguing that in order to pass, the referendum would need the approval of the majority of registered voters, not just those who go to the polls Election Day.
The Capital News Services’ Matt Owings, Matt Fleming, Chris Leyden contributed to this report.