Blair Lee: Ya gotta win to play -- Gazette.Net



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Everyone is familiar with the Maryland lottery’s sales pitch, “Ya gotta play to win.” The ubiquitous slogan hit home this month when some lucky Marylanders won a share of the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot.

But in the Maryland State House, where gambling interests want to pass a mega-millions gambling expansion bill, it’s the other way around. Until enough lawmakers are paid off with “sweeteners,” no gambling expansion bill will pass. In other words, “They gotta win if you wanna play.”

Maryland’s “King of Slots,” Senate President Mike Miller fathered the successful 2008 slots referendum and now wants slots in P.G. County and table games (poker, blackjack, craps, roulette, etc.) at all six slots parlors, transforming them into casinos.

But Miller’s gambling expansion faced several obstacles. First, he needed a bill now because legalizing slots in 2008 was by state constitutional amendment, which required voter approval on the 2008 election ballot. (Nervous lawmakers wanted the voters to have the final say.) But adding a new gambling venue and expanding to table games will now require another constitutional amendment approved by the voters. And if Miller doesn’t get it on this year’s election ballot, he’ll have to wait until the next election in 2014.

Second, Miller faced opposition from P.G. County lawmakers and church ministers who, in 2008, vociferously opposed any slots venues in P.G.

Third, slots operators at the five venues approved in 2008 felt betrayed by adding another competitive parlor. Operators in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore city were particularly alarmed at the prospect of a nearby P.G. casino that would drain off DC-area gamblers.

That’s why Miller’s bill added table games and gave 90 percent of their take to the operators while also raising the operators’ slots take from 33 percent (existing law) to 40 percent.

To pacify P.G. County, Miller first made it clear to County Executive Rushern Baker that the state wouldn’t bail out the county’s hospital unless Baker, a slots opponent, became a supporter. And then Miller gave the remaining 10 percent of the table games take to the local governments and changed an education aid formula so P.G. gets an extra $14 million annually. Also, P.G. voters have final say on permitting a casino there.

Thanks to the “sweeteners” and Miller’s Stalin-esque control of the Senate, his gambling bill easily passed over to the House of Delegates, where it ran into a roadblock.

House lawmakers proposed limiting the new P.G. venue to table games only (no slots), cutting back the other venues’ table games take from 90 percent to 85 percent and giving the 15 percent remainder to the state instead of to the locals (except in P.G.). The House also banned any P.G. casino until July 2016, giving the five existing operators a big head start.

Stripping slots from the new P.G. venue was a killer because the vast majority of any casino’s revenue comes from slots. But killing the new P.G. casino was exactly what lawmakers beholden to the other slots venues intended.

Sensing trouble, Miller quickly responded with a new stripped-down gambling bill that simply sent the new P.G. casino and the table games proposal to the voters as a 2012 constitutional amendment. If the voters passed it in November, the legislature would decide all the sweeteners (percentage of takes, and other payoffs) next year.

But by now, legislative adjournment was only two days away. What ensued was a political game of “chicken” between the Senate (Miller) and the House (Speaker Mike Busch).

Although both bodies passed the state’s $36 billion budget, the income tax increases to fund it were held hostage by Miller until the House passed his gambling bill. In fact, Miller and the Senate even baited the hook by caving in to all the House’s demands on the income tax bill as an incentive for the House to pass Miller’s gambling bill.

But Busch was running into trouble. Even though the House relented on making the P.G. venue a no-slots casino, Miller’s bill was fast becoming chum in the legislative shark tank.

Greedy delegates saw that, because passage of the income tax and the gambling bills were politically linked, their votes were becoming a valuable commodity. They also understood that they could only get paid off now while they had leverage. So they began holding out for additional sweeteners.

The Baltimore city delegation traded its votes for a $2.5 million convention center study and more school construction bonding.

Baltimore County traded its votes in exchange for bringing a school board bill back to life, and Montgomery held out for a bill allowing it to raise a local ambulance fee. (Only Montgomery trades for the right to tax itself more!)

But when Speaker Busch still couldn’t get the votes for Miller’s gambling bill, Miller killed the income tax bill, triggering the alternative $512 million “doomsday” spending cuts required to balance the budget.

Now, once Gov. O’Malley is through pouting, he will call a special session to clean up the mess. But nothing’s changed -- Miller’s still holding the income tax bill hostage until he gets his gambling bill, and Busch still doesn’t have enough gambling bill votes.

In fact, things are worse because the deadlock has driven up the value of delegates’ votes even higher. And in Annapolis, ya gotta win if you wanna play.

Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is blair@leedg.com.