Gaming is complicated if next session takes up issue -- Gazette.Net







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One special session of the General Assembly just ended and plans already are under way for another this summer for lawmakers to discuss an expansion of gambling.

But although legislators focused exclusively on the budget this week, the next session could be complicated if counties’ efforts to expand charity gaming resurface.

A major initiative, which failed at the end of the regular session in April, centered on allowing table games at existing slots facilities and approving a new casino in Prince George’s County. The idea was advanced by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has said he wants a commission to study the issue first, but has yet to announce details or proposed an agenda for the session. Nonetheless, several lawmakers argue that a summer session should be used to consider other issues as well.

Lost amid the debate on table games and a Prince George’s casino, for instance, were several local bills dealing with charitable gaming.

One bill, which would have allowed nonprofits in Carroll County to have casino-night fundraisers up to four times per year, likely will be resubmitted this summer, said Del. Susan Krebs (R-Dist. 9B) of Sykesville.

The county’s delegation has proposed the measure several times in past sessions, and despite its limited scope, it always has become entangled in broader discussions of gambling expansion and stalled, Krebs said. The bill simply would put Carroll on par with neighboring counties that allow charitable gaming, she said.

“Our nonprofits have to go to Baltimore County to have their events,” Krebs said.

Other bills introduced during the regular session would have allowed certain nonprofits, such as veterans organizations, to operate slot machines in Allegany, Baltimore, Frederick, Garrett and Harford counties.

Delegate Kevin Kelly (D-Dist. 1B) of Cumberland said that if other counties put forward similar bills this summer, Allegany likely would follow suit, but he didn’t expect them to move forward. Most likely, the legislature would focus on a single gaming bill, Kelly said.

Another idea expected to resurface is a proposal from Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton that would create an elected state inspector general to investigate fraud, waste and misconduct in state agencies.

Pipkin introduced the bill at the beginning of this week’s session, but legislative leaders only were willing to consider changes to the fiscal 2013 budget and did not give hearings to any other bills. Pipkin said Wednesday that he plans to resubmit the bill if the legislature reconvenes this summer.

“We need to keep the focus on the fact that the taxpayer’s money isn’t being spent properly,” Pipkin said, adding that the government should be as efficient as possible before the governor asks citizens to pay higher taxes.

Pipkin said he also plans to reintroduce legislation to protect pit bulls in the wake of a recent court decision that declared the animals to be inherently dangerous.

O’Malley told reporters Wednesday that although the state needs to address other issues, such as increased funding for transportation projects, he hadn’t given much consideration to whether anything other than gaming should be taken up.

“The legislature always has some flexibility to bring up other things if they so choose,” O’Malley said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis told reporters after this week’s session adjourned Wednesday that it was too early to say whether transportation funding would be addressed this summer.

“Discussions have to take place between the Senate, the House and the governor,” Busch said.

O’Malley has requested that each of the presiding officers nominate members from each chamber to serve on the gaming workgroup, but further discussions haven’t been scheduled, according to the governor’s office.

O’Malley had suggested two ways to increase transportation funding during the regular session: applying the state’s existing 6 percent sales tax to gasoline or increasing the sales tax by one cent across the board, but neither moved forward.

The penny increase resurfaced during the special session when Montgomery County proposed it as an alternative to the income tax increase lawmakers ultimately approved.

“I think we heard people talking about that more probably in the last three days here than they did in the last 10 days of the regular session,” O’Malley said.

Transportation funding definitely is an issue the legislature should take up this summer, said Lon Anderson, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding.

“We have a funding crisis,” Anderson said, adding that lawmakers should make sure the Transportation Trust Fund is protected before any tax increase is adopted.

More than $574 million has been transferred out of the trust fund to balance state budgets since 1984; all of the money has been paid back, according to the administration.

However, the state has taken $947.5 million from highway user revenues, which go to local jurisdictions for road repair, since 2003. That money has not been paid back and no longer is included on state documents about the trust fund, according to Anderson.

“In recent years, the Transportation Trust Fund has been the state’s cookie jar,” Anderson said.

Staff writer Danielle Gaines contributed to this report.