Maryland Senate committee approves O’Malley’s gambling bill as special session kicks off -- Gazette.Net



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Debate about slot machines and casinos returned Thursday to Annapolis, as lawmakers reconvened in special session to discuss an expansion of gambling in Maryland.

After proposals to allow table games and a Prince George’s County casino stalled during this year’s regular session and dragged into the summer, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) introduced a revised plan this week that legislative leaders believe will win the General Assembly’s approval.

“We’re hoping to increase the number of jobs here in the state of Maryland. We’re hoping to increase money for education,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

The bill was introduced in the Senate on Thursday morning and approved by the Budget & Taxation Committee in the afternoon. The Senate will reconvene Friday morning to finish work on the bill, shortly before the House convenes to begin considering its version of the legislation.

A now-familiar group of supporters and opponents of the expansion plan turned out to testify at the hearing.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who has pitched the waterfront National Harbor development as the ideal site for a high-end, destination casino, reaffirmed his support for the plan.

The owners of the recently opened, $500 million Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover again argued that a sixth casino would saturate the state’s gaming market and jeopardize their operation.

“This is not like putting a Starbucks on every corner,” said Joe Weinberg, president of gaming for the Cordish Cos., which owns the casino. “We would not have made the investment we made if there was a sixth license on the table.”

The O’Malley administration, meanwhile, argued that when fully implemented, the proposed expansion would create thousands of new jobs and net at least $200 million in new revenues for the state.

But O’Malley’s proposal also would grant some casinos a lower tax rate on slots revenue to compensate for increased competition and increased costs — such as the transfer of ownership of slot machines from the state to the casinos.

Maryland Live! and a planned casino in Baltimore city could see their share of slots revenue increase from 33 percent to as much as 49 percent after a Prince George’s casino, which likely would start operating in 2016 at the earliest.

Those reductions likely were to be matter of concern to members of the House, said Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Dist. 13) of Columbia, who chairs the House subcommittee that deals with gaming issues.

Turner said he also was concerned that Hollywood Casino in Perryville wasn’t offered the same rate adjustments as other casinos, such as the struggling Casino at Ocean Downs in Worcester County, which will be allowed to keep 43 percent of its proceeds, and a proposed facility at the Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County, which can keep 50 percent of its proceeds.

Penn National Gaming, which owns the Hollywood Casino, also voiced its concern this week.

Compensating the rest of the state’s casinos without including Hollywood isn’t fair, said Karen Bailey, spokeswoman for Penn National.

Last week, Hollywood Casino management said it intended to return between 400 and 500 of its 1,500 slot machines to the state by the end of the year, citing business lost to Maryland Live!, which opened June 6.

Dozens of anti-casino activists from Prince George’s County gathered outside the State House on Thursday morning before the Senate convened, urging lawmakers to reject the proposal.

“We understand what real quality of life is all about,” said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie. “That quality of life does not include casinos in Prince George’s County.”

Lawmakers from Prince George’s have been divided on the casino issue, but Del. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville said he believed the governor’s proposal would be overwhelmingly supported by the county’s delegation. Ross acknowledged that there had not yet been a formal vote count.

Addressing reporters Thursday morning, Miller, who has championed bringing a casino to Prince George’s, was optimistic on the bill’s passage but did not appear certain.

“I think we’re going to get it done, but if we don’t, it’s not because we haven’t tried,” he said.

dleaderman@gazette.net