Howard editorial cartoon

Howard editorial cartoon (August 8, 2012)

When Gov. Martin O'Malley announced July 27 that he would call a special session on gambling expansion, he did not have the necessary votes lined up in the House of Delegates, where gambling bills have hit the most obstacles in recent years.

And so, in the days leading up to the Aug. 9 start of the special session, state and county leaders were still meeting with delegates, lobbying for the 71 House votes needed to pass legislation authorizing a sixth casino inPrince George's County, as well as table games there and at the other five previously approved facilities.

Though the main targets of the talks have been lawmakers from larger delegations, such as Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, Howard County's delegates have not been exempt from the pressure.

Still, very few of Howard's eight delegates have made up their minds about the issue.

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"No one is saying this is a done deal, the votes are there," Howard delegation chairman Del. Guy Guzzone, a Columbia Democrat, said. "There is not unanimity in any of the delegations."

Guzzone is among the undecided.

"I think there's reasonable arguments on both sides," he said about his personal view.

One of the arguments against adding a sixth site is the fact that the other five are not yet up and running.

Columbia Democrat Del. Frank Turner, chairman of the House subcommittee that vets all gambling legislation, has long said that the need for a sixth facility cannot be determined until the other five have been operating long enough to produce revenue data.

"Two of them haven't even put a shovel in the ground," Turner said. "We need to have an idea about our existing facilities before we go and expand."

One of the arguments for the sixth facility, as well as for table games, is the revenue they are expected to generate for the state.

"Factoring in a new revenue source is something in my position (on the House Appropriations Committee) that has to be taken very, very seriously," Guzzone said. He noted that legislators have committed to eliminating the state's projected roughly half-billion-dollar deficit during the 2013 General Assembly session.

However, it's unclear exactly how much the state stands to gain.

Currently, the state collects 67 percent of revenue earned on slots. The proposal for a sixth casino has been tied to a reduction in that tax rate — one of the main points of controversy between the House and the Senate.

A draft bill O'Malley released Tuesday night proposes to reduce the tax rate by 6 percent for the larger operators who will be required to take over the cost and responsibility for the slot machines from the state and by another 5 percent for the Anne Arundel County and Baltimore operators, if and when a casino opens in Prince George's County, to use toward marketing costs or capital improvements, among other deductions.

The state, under O'Malley's bill, would collect 20 percent of table game revenues. The proposed tax rate is much lower than the one for slots because of the costs operators incur to staff the tables.

"By finally resolving this issue of gaming in Maryland, we have an opportunity to generate more than $100 million for our No. 1 ranked public schools, create 2,200 additional, permanent jobs and keep Maryland's facilities competitive with surrounding states," O'Malley said in a statement upon releasing the bill.

Alternative proposals for setting the tax rates are expected to emerge during the special session. As the proposed tax rates change, so, too, do the state's revenue projections.

'One way or another'

The gambling expansion bill will start in the Senate. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, chaired by Columbia Democrat Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Aug. 9 at 1 p.m.