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Senate president is force behind special session on gambling

Miller has pushed for action, set terms of debate

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

8:23 PM EDT, August 8, 2012

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The special session on gambling that begins in Annapolis Thursday is a demonstration of the power of one man: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

While the governor formally summoned lawmakers to the capital, it was Miller who put the issue of expanded gambling atop Maryland's political agenda and who relentlessly keeps it there.

Miller has framed the terms of the debate. A native of Prince George's County, he has made allowing a casino there a precondition for authorizing more gambling options anywhere else. It was Miller who insisted on action this summer, in time to put a gambling expansion measure on the November ballot.

"If the Senate president wasn't pushing this, we wouldn't be meeting," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat and longtime gambling opponent.

Del. Frank Turner, who chairs the House subcommittee that handles gambling issues, called Miller's role "pivotal" in bringing lawmakers back. "I don't see anybody on the House side that's banging drums to do this," said Turner, a Howard County Democrat. "I see one person who is determined to make this happen this year."

To be sure, it took action by Gov.Martin O'Malleyand the agreement of House SpeakerMichael E. Buschto bring lawmakers to the State House at the height of summer vacation season. But many lawmakers believe the governor and House speaker, in the past only lukewarm supporters of gambling, are hoping get the issue resolved largely so they can move on to other matters in the annual 90-day session that begins in January.

"I'm just so sick of this issue," O'Malley said Wednesday. "I just want to get it behind us."

Among the issues that await the Assembly in 2013 is a long-term $500 million budget shortfall. O'Malley is also expected to try to revive a wind power bill he couldn't get during the past two regular sessions.

During the special session, lawmakers will consider a bill that, among other things, would allow a Prince George's casino and permit table games there and at the five sites already licensed for slot machines. A Senate committee will take up the matter Thursday. House members are expected to report Friday to consider the measure, which would also reduce slots tax rates to compensate casino owners for increased competition.

Miller, who for weeks has largely avoided the press, declined to be interviewed for this article. Earlier this year, he explained his devotion to the Prince George's casino as being driven by a desire to raise money for the state and county to pay for programs without further tax increases. He also spoke of the potential to create jobs.

"It is thousands and thousands of jobs. It is increased revenue," Miller said recently. "We need some elected officials to humble themselves and ask and find a way to make this happen."

What Miller wants to happen now are things that didn't in 2007, when the legislature first approved five slots-only gambling locations in the state. At the time, strong opposition to a location in Prince George's – especially from its House delegation — kept the county out of the bill. And many lawmakers were squeamish about approving table games, which raised the specter of full-fledged casinos.

Since then, National Harbor, an upscale development on the Potomac River, has emerged as a rival to Rosecroft Raceway as a leading contender for a Prince George's casino. Early this year, County ExecutiveRushern L. BakerIII threw his support behind a "destination" casino at National Harbor, contending that it was the one location that could attract tourism rather than relying on local residents for its customer base. Later this year, Miller also expressed support for National Harbor.

Meanwhile, as surrounding states have embraced table games, much of the opposition to Las Vegas-style casinos has faded.

During the regular session, O'Malley expressed doubts about adding a Prince George's casino, expressing concern about its effect on existing licensees. When the session ended in disarray, the governor complained that "a silly bomb of gambling" had blown up his administration's budget plans. But he has become a supporter of expanded gambling.

Busch, once a fierce opponent of increased gambling, has also come to support holding the session.

Some observers say acquiescing to the Senate president's priorities is a way for the two fellow Democrats to keep relations with Miller on a civil plane for the next two years. For O'Malley, who is widely believed to have his eyes on a presidential run in 2016, harmony with the Senate president could be especially crucial.

"Miller would absolutely have the power to either deliver or deny the governor's legislative agenda for his remaining two years in power, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "I have no doubt he would be perfectly willing to mess with O'Malley's national ambitions."

Pinsky said agreeing to the special session was a matter of "keeping the peace."

"It's not Mike Busch or even the governor. The governor just wants it out of the way," Pinksy said.

For the most part, the governor has explained his support for a special session in terms of settling the issue so it doesn't wreak havoc on another regular session. When the idea of a special session on gambling was first raised, O'Malley said he wouldn't call one until there was a House-Senate consensus on the matter. Yet even as lawmakers are poised to vote, it remains uncertain whether the chambers are fully in agreement.

Many lawmakers would have been willing to accept a deal permitting table games and expanding casino hours as a way to raise revenue — while keeping gambling only at the five currently authorized casino sites. When two Baltimore delegates raised that idea at a meeting last week, veteran Del. Maggie McIntosh – a committee chair and a top ally of Busch – bluntly explained the political realities.

"We have a president of the Senate who will not pass table games unless we have a sixth site," she said.

In recent years, Miller has benefited from industry contributions to his campaign fund, which he employs largely to help Democratic senators in tight races. Since 2003, he has collected at least $100,000 from companies and individuals with direct interests in the gambling industry. In his most recent report, for 2011, Miller reported at least $37,000 from gambling interests – almost 10 percent of his total receipts for that year.

Miller has also received at least $70,000 since 2003 from organized labor — especially the building trades and hotel unions that hunger for the jobs a National Harbor casino would bring.

Eberly said that while there has been speculation about campaign money as Miller's motivation, he believes it might have more to do with the Senate president's roots in Southern Maryland, an East Coast gambling hotbed until the 1960s. At 70, Eberly noted, Miller is one of the few politicians with a memory of the money the gambling halls along U.S. 301 brought to the region.

In his eagerness to foster casino development, Miller was willing to cut a much more favorable deal with the operators than the House was willing to accept. A bill approved by the Senate this spring would have cut the tax on slot machines from 67 percent to 52 percent, partly to offset a transfer of the cost of the machines from the state to the operators. The bill would have set the rate on table games at 10 percent.

O'Malley's bill, in part reflecting tougher bargaining by Busch, offers less generous terms to the larger casinos and requires that some revenue from a tax break be plowed back into the business. In the governor's bill, operators would pay a 20 percent tax on table games.

Eberly said he believes the special session will produce a deal – largely because the governor and Senate president both need one. If they don't succeed, he said, it would look bad for both men. If Busch lets delegates vote their conscience and comes up short, he has less to lose but could face some contention in the future, Eberly said.

"If in the end the House isn't there, certainly any discussion of there being no love lost between Busch and Miller is accelerated to the nth degree," Eberly said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com