Despite setback, expanded gaming still on table -- Gazette.Net


The failure of a state work group to agree on a plan to expand gaming in the state doesn’t mean the issue is dead, officials say.

Both Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said Thursday discussions on adding table games and a sixth casino will continue, but O’Malley pointed the finger at Busch for the work group’s impasse.

Although a majority of members of the Work Group To Consider Gaming Expansion supported a plan that would have allowed table games such as blackjack and roulette and added a sixth casino site, the three state delegates in the group would not back an accompanying proposal — lowering the state’s tax rate on slot machines.

In a statement Thursday, O’Malley suggested Busch had orchestrated the disagreement to protect the recently opened Maryland Live! casino in Hanover. The casino operators have strongly opposed allowing another major casino in the state.

“Finding common ground will be difficult if House leadership has become invested in the notion that the Anne Arundel site should enjoy a virtual monopoly for as long as possible,” O’Malley said in the statement, adding conversations would continue in an effort to resolve the lingering issues.

Busch told reporters prior to the governor’s statement that many other delegates also would be concerned about lowering the tax rate, but said he wanted to continue the dialogue with the governor and Senate leadership.

“[We’ll] see if there’s the ability to put together the votes that are needed,” Busch said, adding the 11-member work group had reached agreement on “98 percent” of the issues related to expansion.

Busch said he was only looking at the issue as the Speaker of the House, not as a delegate from Anne Arundel.

The group was appointed by O’Malley last month to evaluate the state’s gaming market and, if there was consensus, develop draft legislation to be considered by lawmakers in a special session of the General Assembly.

Busch said he spoke to O’Malley on Wednesday night, but had not yet spoken to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, a vocal supporter of both table games and a sixth casino.

No formal meeting between the presiding officers had been scheduled as of Thursday evening, sources said.

Miller declined to comment Thursday.

If there’s no consensus from the group, O’Malley is unlikely to call a special session to discuss expanding gambling in the state, observers say.

“I don’t see why he would,” said Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City. The results of the work group were a signal that there wasn’t enough support in the House to pass a gaming expansion bill, he said.

“I think [expansion] is inevitable, but clearly we’re not there yet,” Eberly said.

The work group’s members included three senators and four administration members. The chairman, John Morton III, was a former bank executive.

After meeting behind closed doors for several hours Wednesday in Annapolis, the group began its scheduled, public meeting three hours late.

“Unless a consensus can be reached, a convening of a special session to address the expansion of gaming in Maryland would not be successful,” Morton said Wednesday.

The expanded gambling plan supported by the majority would have added an $223 million annually to the state Education Trust Fund, according to Morton.

That proposal would have approved a casino in Prince George’s County with as many as 3,000 slot machines, allowed table games throughout the state, removed restrictions on casino operating hours, and shifted ownership of slot machines from the state to casino operators. But it also would have lowered the tax rate on slots revenue from 67 to 62 percent.

Lowering taxes for casino owners shortly after legislators raised the income tax for many Marylanders wouldn’t be acceptable, said Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring.

Allowing a slots license in Prince George’s County has been a priority for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who announced in February he wanted to build a billion-dollar resort and casino at the waterfront National Harbor development near Oxon Hill.

Baker intended such a high-end, destination facility to draw visitors from Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as tourists visiting the nation’s capital.

But a lower tax rate was needed to entice investors such as MGM Resorts International, which operates the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. MGM announced this past week it would develop an $800 million casino at the site that would create 4,000 permanent jobs, but called for the rate to be lowered to about 52 percent.

If the prospective operators of a casino in Baltimore were willing to move forward at the current tax rate and didn’t object to a Prince George’s casino facility, House members would ask why the tax rate should be lowered to accommodate National Harbor, Busch said.

Baker said in a statement Wednesday he was disappointed the group had not reached an agreement, but hoped legislative leaders would still act to pass legislation that could go before voters, who would have final approval expanded gambling, in the fall.

A law would need to be passed before Aug. 20, when the secretary of state must certify ballot questions to ensure that the issue could be placed on the general election ballot in November, according to the State Board of Elections.