House leaders to scrap Senate casino plan

With only three days remaining in the General Assembly's session, House leaders plan to scrap a Senate plan that would expand gambling in Maryland and write a substantially new bill — a move that could doom any effort to approve a sixth casino in the state this year.

The House concept, outlined Friday at a subcommittee meeting but not put down on paper, would allow a new casino in Prince George's County but would not permit it to operate slot machines — the biggest money-maker in the gambling business.

Instead, it would be limited to table games only — a condition that could make it difficult for a casino developer to obtain financing.

The five slots locations the General Assembly approved in 2007 — only two of which have opened — would be allowed to add table games. But under the House plan, money generated from those games would be taxed more heavily than in the Senate version.

Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat who has acted as point man on the issue for Speaker Michael E. Busch, said the House Ways and Means Committee plans to amend the Senate-passed bill Saturday. He would not predict whether the House plan will be acceptable to the Senate.

"They did their work. We're doing ours, and hopefully they'll like our bill better than they like their own," he said.

Turner said the House plan would allow only table games at the Prince George's site because "ultimately there's just not 85 votes out there for slots." Eighty-five votes are the minimum required to call for a county-only referendum on any expansion of gambling in Prince George's — a move county lawmakers don't want to take without voter approval.

The House plan would apparently allow a table games-only casino site at the riverside National Harbor site favored by Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker but exclude another potential location at Rosecroft Raceway.

The bill favored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would let Rosecroft and National Harbor compete for a site where both slots and table games would be allowed. Unlike the Senate bill, the House would not allow one licensee to own two sites — another provision that would leave Rosecroft owner Penn National out of the picture. Penn National operates the slots parlor in Perryville.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker, said Prince George's officials were reviewing the House proposal.

The House plan was outlined in general terms late Friday afternoon as many lawmakers were clearing out of town for a brief respite before what could be a marathon session Saturday. The General Assembly still has to hammer out a final deal on next year's budget before the Monday night deadline — further complicating any effort to pass gambling-expansion legislation.

Turner said that in the House plan the operator of the envisioned casino site in Prince George's to keep 85 percent of the take and pay 15 percent to the county. He estimated that would yield Prince George's about $15 million a year. Those details were still in flux Friday evening.

Operators of the slots facilities already authorized in Maryland would have the option of adding table games in exchange for a $1 million licensing fee. In their case, the split from those games would be 85-15, with the smaller percentage going to the state. The Senate plan called for a 90-10 split, with the 10 percent going to the jurisdictions in which casinos are located.

If the legislation is approved in committee Saturday, it would probably not reach the House floor until Monday. Even if it were to pass that day, it would leave only a few hours for the chambers to work out what appear to be vast differences in a complicated bill.

Sen. Douglas J. J. Peters, sponsor of the Senate bill, wouldn't rule out the possibility that a deal could be struck.

"If they were to agree to have a conference committee, we could work through it, but if it's going to be a take-it-or-leave-it, it's going to be a really hard sell," he said.

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