By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun
8:54 PM EDT, August 9, 2012
As House Democratic leaders try to muster the votes to pass a gambling bill in Annapolis, they may have some unusual allies: Republicans.
Though the 43-member House GOP caucus opposed having a special session on gambling, now that one has been called, some members say they haven't ruled out supporting the legislation.
Del. Mike McDermott, a Republican who represents a district that includes the Ocean Downs Casino, said he is "open" to the idea of voting for the bill. "This is about the business of gambling," McDermott said.
Other Republicans are looking at the revenue that expanded gambling could bring to the state. "Anything is better than adding more tax burden to the citizens," said Baltimore County Del. Susan Aumann, though she said she has "some reservations" about expanding gambling.
GOP votes could be critical since lawmakers from three of the most reliably Democratic areas of the state — Montgomery County,Prince George's County and Baltimore City — have expressed reservations about Gov.Martin O'Malley's bill or are holding out for expensive local projects.
"We will talk to anyone who is willing to listen," said Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer. "When you look at this issue, there are regional reasons, philosophical reasons and economic reasons to support it."
Gambling is not strictly a partisan issue in Annapolis. In the Senate, 10 Republicans supported a similar gambling expansion bill in April. And when Republican Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.was in office, GOP House members supported some gambling bills.
O'Malley's bill would allow a sixth casino in Maryland — to be built in Prince George's County — and authorize Las Vegas-style table games at all the state's casinos. Voters would have the final say in November.
The fine print is of special interest to some House Republicans. The 55-page bill would make subtle changes, for example, to laws governing the faltering casino at Ocean Downs, in Republican-dominated Worcester County.
The measure would cut 10 points off the tax rate for the casino and lift restrictions on live entertainment, in addition to allowing games such as blackjack and poker. All are ideas that the owner, William Rickman, has sought.
Of particular concern to McDermott is the local impact money. Under the current formula, Worcester County receives $100,000 a year from slot revenue to compensate for additional police and other services needed because of the casino. O'Malley's bill would triple that to $300,000.
With enough extra local money, McDermott said, "I would consider that a win."
In Western Maryland, a similar argument can be heard. There, in GOP-dominated districts, lawmakers who did not support the initial gambling bill in 2007 have fought hard to improve the law to attract a local operator for the casino at the Rocky Gap resort.
The bill would give Allegany County an additional $200,000 a year in local impact aid as well. Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, who represents neighboring Garrett County, declined this week to say how he'd vote — even though House Republican leaders are speaking out strongly against the bill.
Anne Arundel Del. Robert Costa, who was one of five Republicans to cross party lines in 2007 and support gambling legislation, suggested he might do it again if his home county can benefit. Doing so would cross David Cordish, owner of the state's largest casino, at Arundel Mills. Cordish opposes the bill because he believes a new casino would eat into his market share.
"I don't care about Maryland Live — they have $100,000 lobbyists taking care of their interests," Costa said of the Arundel Mills casino.
He said he wants to be sure that Anne Arundel County comes out ahead — and is hoping to tweak some provisions in the bill to ensure the county keeps getting projected levels of local aid.
Some GOP lawmakers see a philosophical reason to support the gambling bill, even if they have reservations. An additional $200 million a year in projected revenue to the state could reduce pressure to increase taxes. (This year's contentious income tax hike on high earners, for example, is supposed to net the state about $250 million a year.)
House Republican leaders don't necessarily see it that way. Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House minority leader, called the governor's bill "a special deal, for special friends that will be rammed through in a special session."
His caucus is set to meet Friday morning, about an hour before the chamber is set to go into session.
O'Donnell would not say whether he will ask his members to vote against it as a group. "We are not going to show those cards until we are ready," he said.
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