One special session down, another to go?

Legislators face prospect of return to Annapolis over gambling

May 20, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

State Sen. Jamie Raskin likens the prospect of being called back to Annapolis for another special session to the plight of a middle school student being told on the last day of classes that he has to attend summer school.

But the Montgomery County Democrat, like the 187 other Maryland lawmakers, came out of the special session on budget issues last week knowing there's a strong likelihood they will be summoned back to Annapolis in July to contend with the thorny issue of expanding gambling.

Many, if not most, dread the idea.

"I just don't think coming back to increase gaming is an important enough subject to call back every legislator," said Del. Curt Anderson, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city delegation. "The actual prospects are still slim."

Republicans, who opposed Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to call this year's first special session, don't like the idea of a second any better.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County said, "If [a gaming expansion is] going to be done, it ought to be done in the regular session," which begins next January.

But those who back an expansion of gambling — allowing table games to go with slots, and adding a sixth casino — want to put the question before voters in November. If they can't get the issue on the ballot this fall — an action that would require passage of legislation this summer — they won't get another chance until 2014.

O'Malley proposed the second session as a way of separating questions about gambling from the debate over income tax increases that lawmakers approved during the first special session.

That division managed to satisfy Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the state's most powerful proponent of expanded gambling.

Many in Annapolis, including the governor and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, thought Miller's intense interest in passing a gambling bill complicated the effort to bring the House and Senate together around a budget plan during the 90-day regular session.

Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, wants to authorize a new casino in Prince George's County, and to allow table games there and at the five slots-only gambling locations approved by the voters in 2008.

His favored location for the sixth casino is National Harbor, a luxury hotel and convention center complex on the banks of the Potomac River just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

That location also has the support of Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, one of the main cheerleaders for a second special session. He said a casino at National Harbor would bring a much-needed $69 million in annual revenue to the county, as well as thousands of jobs.

"It's critical that we have it on the ballot this year," Baker said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also supports a special session. She wants lawmakers to approve table games at the planned slots location in Baltimore.

"For the city, an expansion will create more jobs, increase state education funding, and help lower property taxes for city homeowners," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor.

Miller argues that National Harbor is ideally situated to attract Virginia and District of Columbia residents, as well as Washington tourists, to visit Maryland and leave a respectable amount of their money behind.

Speaking with reporters after the Senate adjourned Wednesday, Miller cast the next special session as a way to reduce Maryland's stubborn long-term projected deficits, which he estimated at $500 million. Expanding gambling could allow the legislature to avoid tax increases next year, he said.

"Hopefully we can get another site up and running and we can get table games so we can compete fairly and equitably with Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia," Miller said.

O'Malley is expected to quickly name a commission, with members from the Senate and House, to study the gambling expansion — with the ambitious goal of reporting back by June 20. Miller said the panel will make recommendations on changing the state's share of casino revenues, which is now 67 percent.

The Senate president said he wants to be sensitive to concerns raised by other casino operators, particularly David Cordish, who will open the state's largest gambling site, Maryland Live!, at Arundel Mills next month.

That casino stands to lose the most as a result of competition from a new gambling site in Prince George's County. Cordish spared no effort in fighting such an expansion during the 90-day session.

Miller promised any deal will be fair to the businessman.

"Mr. Cordish has invested his money," Miller said. "He needs to be held harmless. We're going to give him whatever break he needs to be held harmless and that is a promise."

Representatives from Cordish's company did not return a call for comment.

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