Maryland’s draft gambling bill expected next week -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated at 11 a.m. July 20.

After a week of closed-door meetings with lawmakers, legislative leaders and local officials, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is drafting a bill that once again will try to expand gambling in the state.

The bill, expected to land next week, is likely to address concerns that the state’s existing casinos, as well as a planned facility in Baltimore city, should be held harmless if a new facility is allowed in Prince George’s County.

A verdict on a special session is not expected until after the bill is released.

O’Malley told reporters he was working on the bill after he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis met with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) and several members of the city’s House delegation Wednesday to discuss gambling expansion — about which some delegates have been skeptical.

But the drafting of a bill isn’t necessarily an indication that lawmakers are close to an agreement.

“What they need rather than a complete piece of legislation at this stage of the game is just to understand how they would directly be affect with the addition of a sixth site,” Busch said Thursday.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said Thursday that because many lawmakers have concerns about particular issues, assembling a bill helps in taking stock and serves as a working document.

Delegates said there was no vote count during Wednesday’s meeting and that it was for members who had not been closely involved in the discussion to catch up.

But delegation Chairman Curt Anderson (D-Dist. 43) said the governor also used the meeting to strike a more threatening tone, suggesting that Caesars Entertainment — which has put in a bid to build a casino in the city — might lose interest if an expansion was not approved.

The administration feels that it could be more difficult for Caesars to secure financing without table games, but a clearer sense of what the state’s gaming market will look like down the road — with table games and a sixth site — could help get a better deal, said Joe Bryce, O’Malley’s chief legislative officer.

Caesars has said it’s willing to support a casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s if table games also are allowed, but is prepared to move forward with a slots-only facility, as initially was planned when Caesars submitted its bid, if there is no expansion, according to CEO Gary Loveman.

“That’s when some of us looked at each other and said, ‘What the [heck?]’” Anderson said.

Anderson said he expected that Wednesday’s meeting would discuss the delegation’s desire to receive additional bonding authority for city schools in exchange for support of expanded gambling.

The delegation will meet again Wednesday to discuss the draft bill, he said.

The debate about 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 an 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 balked at plans 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, 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.

On Monday, O’Malley floated a compromise plan — based on recommendations from House members — that would establish a state Gaming Commission that would have limited power to adjust the state’s tax rate.

“I think that makes sense, quite frankly,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach said Tuesday after meeting with Busch and O’Malley. “You should have economists and accountants coming back with recommendations for the rates, not legislators that don’t have an expertise.”

Miller declined to comment Thursday on the week’s developments.