House panel puts off action until Monday

The House of Delegates subcommittee that handles gambling postponed action on the governor's casino expansion bill until Monday amid signs that Speaker Michael E. Busch was getting his troops in line to pass the measure.

Members of the Ways and Means subcommittee on financial resources met Saturday for a briefing on the bill, which would permit a new casino in Prince George's County while also allowing table games there and at the state's five already-licensed casinos. State law currently permits only slot machines.

After quizzing legislative analysts, a lottery official and a top aide to Gov. Martin O'Malley, members adjourned without beginning the arduous process of sifting through what are expected to be dozens of proposed amendments.

Del. Frank Turner, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said he expects to spend most of Monday working on amendments. He said it might be Tuesday before the House version of the bill comes to the floor for a vote.

But Turner, who has been openly skeptical about adding a Prince George's casino, hinted that the committee would vote out a bill that includes the provision for a sixth site — the key demand of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"If that's not in the bill, there's really no purpose in us being here," Turner said.

The bill would lead to a November referendum, in which voters would decide whether to allow the additional site and table games such as poker and roulette.

Subcommittee members questioned the analysts, Maryland Lottery head Stephen Martino and chief legislative officer Joseph C. Bryce about details of the governor's bill, including a provision that would ban political contributions by casino owners. They asked how a "hold-harmless" provision designed to protect tax revenue for local governments would work.

Some Prince George's delegates expressed misgivings about that language, which would protect Baltimore and Anne Arundel County from declines in aid that could result if competition from a Prince George's casino caused a decrease in business at the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills and the planned downtown Baltimore casino. But none of the lawmakers suggested that the provision was a deal-breaker.

Del. Melvin Stukes, a Baltimore Democrat, said he plans to offer an amendment that would beef up O'Malley's proposed ban on political donations to state and local candidates by casino owners. Stukes wants to expand the language to include other business entities an owner may control. Stukes noted that some casino owners, including David Cordish of Maryland Live, control dozens of limited liability corporations through which they can make donations.

Cordish is an outspoken opponent of the legislation, which Stukes said he supports.

According to Cordish, a new casino in Prince George's could take away as much as 40 percent of his newly opened casino's business and lead to a saturation of the gambling market.

The bill would allow Rosecroft Raceway to compete with National Harbor, the site favored by the county government, for the Prince George's license. But Stukes, like many others, sees National Harbor as having the edge.

Stukes said he doesn't believe the contention that Cordish couldn't have envisioned an expansion to National Harbor at the time his company put in a bid to open the Anne Arundel casino. "Cordish is a very shrewd businessman. Damn right he knew it was coming," Stukes said.

Cordish has maintained that he relied on what he considers an implicit commitment by the state to hold the line on new competition before deciding to invest about $500 million to build one of the nation's largest casinos at Arundel Mills. He has charged that passage of the bill would amount to a breach of faith on the part of the state.

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