With his call for a special session on gambling next month, Gov. Martin O'Malley is placing a high-stakes political bet that he can prevail in a struggle over one of the most contentious issues facing Maryland.
A win could burnish his image at a time when he is widely thought to harbor presidential ambitions. But failure to deliver could deal a blow to his standing at home and in the national arena, political observers said.
Flanked on Friday by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, O'Malley set Aug. 9 as the day for lawmakers to return to Annapolis for the second time since the General Assembly adjourned in April.
This time they will be asked to vote on a proposal to add table games such as blackjack and roulette to the mix of gambling choices in Maryland and to clear the way for a casino in Prince George's County. If lawmakers agree, the measure would then go before voters in the November election.
O'Malley, a Democrat, said the proposal would yield an added $100 million in state revenue in the next budget year alone — a figure that does not include revenue from a Prince George's casino — as well as thousands of construction and permanent jobs.
"All of us know how divisive an issue this can be for us and the General Assembly," O'Malley said. "It's time now to act and put this issue behind us so we can move forward on the other issues."
Some veteran lawmakers among the majority Democrats say the governor is going into the special session with no firm guarantee that he has enough votes to pass a bill.
"In the House, obviously, no, they're not lined up yet," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. McIntosh, a member of Busch's leadership team, said she needs to examine the details of a bill before deciding whether it's good for the city.
Busch, however, said he's confident the votes will be there by the time the House votes.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said the issue is "full of political pitfalls" for a governor who is widely believed to have ambitions of running for president in 2016.
"It is a tremendous political risk and one that I would have advised the governor to have avoided completely," Eberly said. If O'Malley gets his bill through both the legislature and the potentially difficult referendum that would follow, "he's looking pretty good," Eberly said.
Donald Norris of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County said O'Malley probably is making a good bet.
"It is either a done deal or very, very close to a done deal," said Norris, chairman of UMBC's public policy department. If O'Malley wins, he added, "it will show people who are watching that he's the real deal, that he's got the goods. If on the other hand it blows up, it will not do him any good at all."
The governor has allies in trying to make sure that doesn't happen.
Among those on hand for Friday's announcement were Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, supporters who could help drum up support for a casino bill in their Democratic strongholds.
The governor also was flanked by about a dozen representatives of organized labor — a group that waged a high-powered lobbying effort to push for the gambling expansion even as hopes for a special session seemed to be fading.
Mark Coles, business representative for the Washington Building Trades Council, said union representatives have been meeting with Democrats to impress upon them that the casino bill is a top priority for organized labor because of its potential to create jobs.
Republicans have objected to calling a special session at a cost of roughly $20,000 per day, arguing that any gambling expansion should be left to the regular legislative session in January. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland and Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio of the Eastern Shore denounced the decision.
"The harrowing pressure cooker of a get-it-done-quick special session is not the place to debate an issue as complex as the expansion of gaming in Maryland," they said in a statement. "Moreover, the image of Democratic leaders flanked by organized labor and Las Vegas gambling interests should be chilling to anyone who believes in honest and open government."
The special session comes after one O'Malley called in May to finish work on budget-related bills that were left incomplete at the end of the legislature's regular 90-day session — in part because they became tangled in a House-Senate struggle over gambling.
O'Malley persuaded Busch and Miller, both Democrats, to put aside the gambling issue during that session and set up a work group to study it. But the panel failed to reach a consensus when its House-appointed members balked at a plan agreed to by the administration and the Senate leadership. Prospects for a special session seemed to fade.
Talks continued, however, as proponents and opponents battered each other with TV ad campaigns
It appears a key to the decision to move forward was the Senate's agreement to leave the state's tax on slot machine revenues at 67 percent for now.
"The tax rate would remain the same until the citizens make a decision about whether there would be a sixth site," O'Malley said.
Previously, senators had supported a plan that would have cut the slots tax — in part to promote a more upscale development in Prince George's and in part to compensate current and prospective owners of the existing licenses for increased competition.
The issue proved to be a sticking point in the House, where some members have expressed concern about reducing the tax rate for casino operators when the state has just raised income taxes for some Maryland families.
This week, MGM Resorts International, the prospective operator of a casino at National Harbor in Prince George's, dropped its demand for a lower tax rate.
McIntosh welcomed the MGM decision. "I think that's movement, that's helpful," she said.
O'Malley said final details of the proposed legislation are still being hammered out. He said a bill will be released a few days before the legislature convenes.
Miller, who expressed confidence that the Senate would muster a bipartisan majority for the bill, would not say whether Busch has given him a commitment to deliver a majority in the House.
"I'm confident the speaker's going to work to make this pass," Miller said. He predicted the session would take two or three days.
Busch said approval of a Prince George's casino would be contingent upon the support of a majority of the voters in that jurisdiction. He said, however, that if a statewide referendum were to pass but Prince George's County voters said no to a casino, the provisions allowing table games would go into effect.
O'Malley and the presiding officers said any bill that passes would include "hold-harmless provisions" protecting the revenue streams of local jurisdictions with existing or planned casinos, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County.
But where Rawlings-Blake is satisfied with those provisions, Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, a Republican, is not.
"If we have to hold a discussion about holding certain jurisdictions harmless, obviously that indicates there's going to be harm to some entities," said Leopold, a staunch defender of the newly opened Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills.
The special session will likely pit allies of David Cordish, chief executive of the company that developed Maryland Live, against proponents of a Prince George's casino.
Miller said after the governor's news conference that Cordish would reap benefits from the legislation, but Cordish released a statement a few hours later rejecting that premise. The prospect of "oversaturation" of the casino market is real, he said.
"There is one trade area, and if the Maryland Constitution is amended to allow for a destination casino in National Harbor, added to the already allowed Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, and existing Charles Town, W.Va., mega casinos, the equation can't possibly work for the state of Maryland or the casino operators," he said.
National Harbor is the Prince George's site with the most political backing. It is prime riverfront property that proponents tout as ideal for a destination casino. However, the legislation is expected to require National Harbor to compete with other Prince George's sites, including Rosecroft Raceway, for a license.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun