Gov. O’Malley has called an Aug. 9 special session of the state legislature to enact gambling expansion legislation. Or, as one wag puts it, “a special session for special interests.”
The session is already born in deceit: Special sessions are, by law, limited to emergencies. The emergency, says O’Malley, is the “need to put this issue behind us,” which, of course, is complete nonsense.
Since when is getting rid of an issue justification for passing it? The Democratic legislature let slots linger during Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s four-year term just to deny him a legislative victory. Do you recall anyone back then saying, “We should pass slots to put the issue behind us”?
Another untruth is O’Malley’s assurance that he wouldn’t call a special session until he had the votes. Well, he doesn’t have the votes. He doesn’t even have the legislation yet.
What O’Malley does have, finally, is both of the legislature’s presiding officers on board. Senate President Mike Miller is already gambling’s crown prince (when Miller dies his tombstone will be a granite slot machine). And House Speaker Mike Busch has been beaten into submission.
So O’Malley is betting on the State House’s oldest maxim: When the governor and both presiding officers all want something, it passes.
Here’s the math: Gambling expansion has repeatedly passed Miller’s Senate by wide margins. Conversely, it’s repeatedly failed in the House of Delegates. So, the House is the battleground.
There are 141 delegates, of which 71 are necessary to pass a bill. Republican leaders claim all 43 Republicans will vote “no.” So, if 28 of the remaining 98 Democrats oppose it, gambling expansion fails.
Here are the pockets of House resistance, and here are leadership’s (O’Malley, Miller and Busch) strategies for overcoming them:
Ÿ The moralistsSome delegates strongly oppose the state preying upon people’s addictions and desperation. However, lawmakers who vote their conscience comprise such a tiny fraction of the General Assembly that, despite their resolve, they can be, and will be, easily circumvented.
Some black lawmakers, particularly in P.G. County, are under pressure from ministers and churches who oppose gambling. Some of these lawmakers will cave in, like Del. Tiffany Alston did on the same-sex marriage bill. But others fear losing re-election.
So, to get those black lawmakers off the hook, leadership is making the Nov. 6 statewide gambling expansion referendum contingent on approval by a majority of P.G.’s voters in the same referendum vote.
Of course, making a statewide referendum contingent upon one county’s approval is illegal. But that’s no problem, says leadership. If gambling expansion passes statewide but fails in P.G., the “intent” will be honored, says leadership. Just trust us.
Sure it’s a scam, but it lets the black lawmakers tell the ministers, “I’m not voting for gambling, I’m just voting to send gambling to referendum so the voters can decide.” Might be enough to fool the ministers.
Ÿ Republicans Will all 43 Republicans bloc vote against gambling expansion? Probably not. Once the price of votes gets high enough, some will cash in. That’s what happened with the same-sex marriage bill, and that’s why the Republicans are inconsequential in Annapolis -- no party discipline.
Lawmakers beholding to the five authorized casinos oppose the addition of a competitive sixth casino at National Harbor in PG County. But the five casinos see the handwriting on the wall and are busily trying to cut deals with leadership. Once these interests are placated, these votes will be released.
Ÿ OpportunistsOnly on rare occasions like this is a delegate’s vote meaningful. So, some members can’t resist shaking down leadership for personal and constituent benefits.
For example, the entire 18-member Baltimore city delegation is holding out for more state school construction money. Leadership’s dilemma is paying off the city without igniting a bidding war with the other delegations. Fortunately, the Montgomery and Baltimore County delegations are such inept horse traders they will fumble the opportunity.
Ÿ Tax-cut worriersLeadership’s biggest stumbling block is cutting the state’s 67 percent casino tax in order to quiet the five authorized casinos and to make the National Harbor casino profitable. Just legalizing table games isn’t enough, say the casinos, they need a tax cut, too.
But many delegates fear cutting casino taxes after voting for $2 billion-a-year tax increases on ordinary citizens.
So here’s the ploy: Instead of dealing with the tax-cut issue in next week’s special session, O’Malley and the legislature will merely vote to send National Harbor expansion and table games to the voters on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Then, once the voters approve, O’Malley and the legislators will enact the casino tax cuts in next year’s regular legislative session, after the controversy’s blown over.
So, “poof,” the tax-cut problem disappears along with transparency, accountability and the public trust. That’s the real price of gambling expansion.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.