I know what you’re thinking, “Geez, does this guy ever write about anything other than gambling?” Fair point considering this is my fourth straight column on the subject.
But please understand that when gambling expansion torpedoes the state budget, sends the legislature into extra innings and involves hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands it becomes, by far, the biggest story in Maryland politics.
When last we left off, gambling expansion negotiations were deadlocked. Senate President Mike Miller wanted to expand the currently authorized five slot venues to a sixth site at the National Harbor resort/conference center next to Wilson Bridge in P.G. County.
To appease the five current slots operators, Miller’s plan allowed all six slots casinos to add table games (craps, blackjack, etc.) and also cut the state’s tax on casino income. The extra revenues from table games and the tax cut were designed to compensate the five operators for the action they’d lose after the National Harbor casino opening, which Miller was even willing to delay until 2016.
But Miller’s plan failed in the House of Delegates, where some members didn’t like the idea of cutting casino taxes after raising taxes on everyone else in Maryland; where some delegates were beholden to David Cordish, whose Anne Arundel County casino is most at risk from National Harbor; and where, frankly, some delegates were withholding support until they got something in exchange.
That’s how the regular, 90-day General Assembly session ended April 9, and that’s how a subsequent 11-member “work group” appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley ended a couple of weeks ago.
So now O’Malley has become directly involved — which he should have done months ago instead of cavorting around the nation picking fights with Republican governors. Better late than never, O’Malley is using every tool at his disposal, but he’s facing a host of obstacles.
First, he needs to mend fences with Speaker Mike Busch, whom he accused of being in David Cordish’s pocket and further insulted, saying, “I thought progress was being made until right up to the goal line, when the House members pulled out and walked off the field and took off their helmets” (Busch was a high school and college football star; O’Malley was a high school bench warmer).
Second, he needs to get 71 House Democratic votes (all the Republicans are opposed) by Aug. 20, the deadline for adopting ballot language for the Nov. 6 Election Day referendum vote. But the National Conference of State Legislatures holds its annual summit meeting Aug. 6 to 9 in Chicago, followed by the Maryland Association of Counties’ annual blowout Aug. 15 to 18 in Ocean City. O’Malley dare not disrupt or compete with these two, time-honored junkets by calling a special session. And, like most Marylanders, a slew of state lawmakers scheduled their family summer vacations for July and August. Don’t expect to see them at a special session.
Third, and most difficult, O’Malley must amend Miller’s gambling expansion plan in ways that attract the 71 House votes lacking so far. He’s met privately with county leaders and the Baltimore city delegation negotiating for “sweeteners” (more state cash for city school construction and giving the city some of the state’s casino tax). Other House delegations will be similarly accommodated and, one by one, votes will be secured.
But the delegates want O’Malley’s promises in writing because they remember back in 2007, when O’Malley cut a deal with Montgomery lawmakers by promising $55 million in school construction money and, later, reneged.
O’Malley’s biggest challenge is getting the casino tax cut, upon which the entire gambling expansion deal hinges. No casino tax cut, no National Harbor. So O’Malley is calling for a punt -- instead of the legislature taking the heat for cutting taxes on billionaire casino owners, turn it over to an unelected commission.
The governor wants casino taxes to be decided by a newly created state Gaming Commission, a brazen attempt to politically insulate state lawmakers so they’ll feel free to vote for the gambling expansion deal.
Adding insult to injury, O’Malley says a commission is necessary because the legislature can’t handle the job: “This is probably something that is more complicated and better left to a commission to handle … leave it to a panel with some expertise and some ability to commission market studies.”
Picking up the theme, Miller added, “I believe that makes sense, you should have economists and accountants coming back with recommendations for the (casino) rates, not legislators that don’t have the expertise.”
So there we have it. State lawmakers lack the expertise to make tax decisions. Funny, because I don’t remember that concern when the General Assembly passed more than 20 tax hikes (sales tax; income tax; corporate income tax; tobacco tax; alcohol tax; vehicle registration, tag and title fees; flush tax; computer tax; birth and death certificate fees, etc.) during O’Malley’s tenure.
In fact, the bulk of those tax hikes occurred during the one-week 2007 special session without benefit of public hearings or all those expert studies that suddenly seem so important. It would be more credible if O’Malley and Miller simply said that the legislature can’t deal with cutting the casino tax because cutting taxes is so foreign to their nature.
For O’Malley, the moment of truth is fast approaching. Lacking the House votes, does he convene a special session anyway and sweat out the majority he needs? That’s what he did in November 2007 and got away with it.
If O’Malley was playing bridge, this would be “shooting the moon” (bidding to win all 13 tricks). But, of course, they don’t play bridge in casinos.
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 email@example.com.