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Howard delegates have mixed views on gambling expansion

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.

"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.

Though some of the details of the bill are different from those in the bill the Senate passed earlier this year, it is still expected to easily pass that chamber.

However, the House is a different story. Finding 71 supporters in the chamber was difficult enough during the regular session, when all the delegates were in Annapolis. Now, it's summer and some delegates had vacations or other things planned for this week.

Del. Liz Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, is one of them. She doesn't plan to be in Annapolis for the special session, nor has the leadership encouraged her to be.

"I've told them in the past they will not get my vote on expanding gambling now or ever," she said.

But Bobo, who is vacationing with her family, believes her vote is not even needed.

"I would be very surprised if expanded gambling is not approved during this session," she said. "They will get the votes they want one way or another. ... If I thought there were any chance that I could stop this from going through, I would fly home for a day or two."

Both the addition of table games and a sixth casino require voter approval. If legislation does not pass during the special session in time to get it on the November ballot, any gambling expansion would not happen until 2014.

"If (gambling expansion) was that important and had to be on the ballot, it could have been done during the regular session," West Friendship Republican Del. Gail Bates said.

Bates is likely going to vote against the legislation.

"I have consistently opposed gambling as a means for balancing our budget," she said.

Bates' District 9A colleague Del. Warren Miller agreed that the issue could have been addressed earlier and that a special session, the second one this year, "is an incredible waste of time and money.

"I think a lot of this has to do with the governor looking for campaign money from MGM in 2016 when he runs for president," Miller said, referring to the world's largest casino operator, MGM Resorts International, which has expressed interesting in building a casino at National Harbor in Prince George's County.

Miller has long opposed specifying locations for the casinos in the state constitution, which he sees as eliminating the competitive process and creating an advantage for specific operators.

'Not ... critical'

The Republicans aren't the only ones annoyed that the issue couldn't be addressed during a regular session.

"Special sessions I think of being reserved for very, very critical things," Columbia Democrat Del. Shane Pendergrass said. "This would not be on the top of my list of things that are critical for the state of Maryland."

Pendergrass said she needs to see the details of the gambling expansion before deciding whether she will support it. However, she noted, had the original slots legislation that the General Assembly passed in 2007 been her version, the legislature would not need to reconvene to decide whether Prince George's County should be allowed to have a casino.

During the 2007 slots debate, Pendergrass drafted a bill that, in putting the slots question on the 2008 ballot, would have authorized each county that voted for slots to be home to a casino — under the premise that people shouldn't vote for something they don't feel comfortable having in their backyard.

"In hindsight, had we done that bill, that would have opened up the Prince George's debate at the beginning of the process," she said.

The majority of Prince George's County residents did vote for slots in 2008, but that was after the county delegation took a hard stance against one of the five specified locations from being in Prince George's County.

The current proposal to legalize table games and authorize a sixth casino in Prince George's County — if passed by the General Assembly during the special session, would be posed together as a single ballot question in November.

If the proposal is approved by the majority of voters statewide but rejected by the majority of Prince George's County voters, the sixth casino will not happen, but table games will be allowed at the five already approved locations.

The bill would allow table games to be up and running as soon as January 2013. However, the Prince George's casino would not be allowed to open until July 2016.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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