No answer yet on special session
by Daniel Leaderman
Staff WriterThis story was updated at 5:15 p.m. July 17, 2012.
Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislative leaders are expected to meet with Baltimore city’s state delegates as well as the city’s mayor Wednesday, as they continue to seek an agreement on expanding gambling.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) is scheduled to meet with members of the city’s House delegation to discuss the matter, an aide confirmed. O’Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30 of Annapolis) are also expected to attend.
Rawlings-Blake supports efforts to expand gambling, but city delegates want to make sure a planned casino in Baltimore wouldn’t be hurt by a proposed facility in Prince George’s Count
The delegation also wants to see the city school system’s bonding authority increased before it supports a gambling bill, said delegation Chairman Curt Anderson (D-Dist. 43).
Anderson said the delegation wanted such a measure to be passed alongside a gambling bill. “We’re not going to take pledges and promises that they’ll do these things [later,]” he said.
But Anderson said he doubted that legislative leaders would want a special session to address anything besides gambling.
“They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them if they think they’re going to pull this off,” Anderson said.
A meeting between the governor and legislative leaders Tuesday ended with no agreement on whether there will be a special legislative session to take up expanded gaming.
“We sat in there and tried to make an assessment,” said Busch. “We came, really, to no conclusion, and that was about it.”
Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach met with O’Malley at the governor’s residence for more than an hour.
“I think there’s still a strong opportunity to resolve this issue and to do it sooner rather than later,” O’Malley told reporters in Cockeysville later that morning.
“We made some progress today, and we made progress last week, and so we continue to move forward,” O’Malley said, adding that there were ongoing meetings between House leaders and House members to reach consensus.
“I think we’re getting there,” O’Malley said.
Miller, who has long supported expanding gambling but kept a low profile in recent weeks, also said that progress was being made. “The governor expressed a sincere willingness to move forward,” he said.
Citing the example of President Harry S. Truman, Miller also suggested that lawmakers might need to be asked directly to give their support.
“It really ought to be simple enough for members of the General Assembly to recognize that the only thing we need right now is a sixth site and table games,” Miller said.
O’Malley has reached out to House members for their support on the issue, according to staff.
Del. Frank Turner (D-Dist. 13) of Columbia, who chairs the House subcommittee that deals with gambling issues and was a member of a state work group that discussed expanding gambling, said O’Malley hadn’t spoke to him yet, but that he expected all House members would be contacted as leadership looked for the 71 votes needed to pass a gambling expansion.
A definitive announcement on a special session is expected later in the week.
The debate over modifying the state’s gambling program — including adding Las Vegas-style table games and allowing a major casino and resort in Prince George’s County — spilled over from this year’s regular legislative session, when the Senate approved an expansion plan but the House did not.
A July special session was thought to be a sure thing until the 11-member state work group, which was expected to produce draft legislation, failed to reach an agreement on a plan last month. Although there was broad agreement on most points, the group’s House member’s — including Turner — balked at a proposal to lower the state’s 67 percent tax rate on slots revenue.
MGM Resorts International has agreed to develop a high-end casino at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, but has said a lower tax rate is needed to make the project viable.
Although a full consensus wasn’t reached, a majority of the members of the state Workgroup to Consider Gaming Expansion supported opening a sixth casino in Prince George’s County with 3,000 slot machines and a slots tax rate of 62 percent.
Overall, the group projected that its recommendations could put as much as $223 million per year into the state’s Education Trust Fund. The fund currently receives 48.5 percent of gross slots revenue in the state.
Monday, O’Malley floated a compromise plan — based on recommendations that came from House members in the work group — that would establish a state Gaming Commission with limited power to adjust the state’s tax rate.
“I think that makes sense, quite frankly,” Miller said. “You should have economists and accountants coming back with recommendations for the rates, not legislators that don’t have an expertise.”
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton said in a statement Tuesday that O’Malley’s support of a commission was “cowardly” and “rides roughshod over the authority and responsibilities” of the General Assembly.