No special session next week, but stay tuned

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Friday he won't bring lawmakers back to Annapolis next week to expand the state's gambling program as initially planned, but he will continue pushing the issue.

"We will not be calling a special session for July 9," O'Malley said Friday evening after appearing with President Barack Obama at the White House. "I continue to look for a consensus."

O'Malley said he still might call a special session this summer at which lawmakers would vote on proposals to authorize a sixth casino in Maryland and allow table games such as poker at all six.

The announcement keeps Annapolis lawmakers and gambling interests in a state of legislative limbo, unsure if and when a deal might be brokered. It leaves open the chance that the state's 188 senators and delegates might be summoned for a second special session this year.

"This is an ongoing saga, isn't it?" said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat, who has opposed adding another casino. "I'd like to know I have some freedom this summer."

The clock is ticking: Major changes to Maryland's gambling program would have to be approved by voters in the November election or wait until 2014. State law requires ballot questions for this fall to be set by Aug. 20.

"I think there is a way forward," O'Malley said. "There are a lot of things we agree on," he added, such as letting casinos offer table games in addition to the currently approved slot machines.

Leaving the gambling issue unresolved, O'Malley said, "threatens to divide the legislature" and "undermine other important things that we should be accomplishing in these next two years."

There has been serious talk of expanding Maryland's nascent gambling program since early this year, when Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III began advocating for a casino at National Harbor on the banks of the Potomac River.

The state Senate, which has tended to support gambling, passed a bill authorizing the change. The House did not seriously take up the discussion until the final days of the regular session, when the gambling bill became interlocked with the state's $35 billion budget.

Neither issue was settled by the April 9 deadline, causing a legislative storm from which lawmakers are still trying to recover.

The first part of the cleanup began in May, when the General Assembly met in a brief special session to agree on a state budget. Lawmakers approved a package of legislation that included raising income taxes on individuals earning more than $100,000 (and couples making more than $150,000.)

O'Malley also created a work group to explore expanding gambling in the state, directing some of his most trusted aides to sit down with House and Senate leaders to find an agreement. But consensus proved elusive, as is often the case in Maryland politics when the topic turns to casinos. After three public meetings — and at least one private gathering — the House members dissented from a plan endorsed by the Senate and administration representatives.

"I would have hoped that we had a consensus coming out of the commission's work," O'Malley said this week. "I was surprised by the turnabout at the goal line of the three House members."

A sticking point for the delegates was a proposal to reduce the state's 67 percent tax rate on slot machine earnings. The extra profit for casino operators was deemed necessary to compensate them for unexpected competition from a sixth site and to enable financing for the resort-style casino that Baker wants.

House leaders, including Speaker Michael E. Busch, have said they felt uncomfortable cutting taxes on billionaire casino owners so soon after raising income taxes on middle-income Marylanders. The three casinos now operating in Maryland include one at Arundel Mills, one in Perryville and one near Ocean City. A fourth casino has been licensed at the Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County, and the state is poised to approve a fifth in Baltimore.

Advocates for a sixth casino at National Harbor have taken to the airwaves to counter the House position. Their pitch: An additional casino would generate union jobs, and the changes recommended by the gambling work group would bring in an added $223 million a year in state revenue.

Opponents — notably Baltimore developer David Cordish, who owns the state's largest and most profitable casino at Arundel Mills — argued that tinkering with the fledgling gambling program was unfair and unwise. The additional slot machines at a sixth casino would saturate the market, reducing profit to both him and the state, he said.

Cordish says the state could bring in added revenue without a sixth casino by approving related proposals such as shifting the responsibility for buying slot machines to the casino operators.

In the middle of the debate are O'Malley, who until recently had shown little interest in expanded gambling, and Busch, who has been reluctant to change the current program.

Talking to reporters at the State House this week, O'Malley pledged to "reach out beyond the Democratic leadership" in the House to "resolve this issue with some greater and longer-lasting permanence and predictability."

It is unclear whether 71 votes could be found in the lower chamber to expand gambling. House Republican leaders wrote a letter to Busch in May saying that their 43-member caucus would not support a gambling bill in a special session.

"That has not changed," said House Republican leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland. "If we are going to deal with these issues, we should not deal with them in the context of a special session. We will not rush through a bill. There is no crisis here."

That means the votes would have to come from the 98-member House Democratic caucus, which appears to be philosophically split on gambling. Opposition is particularly strong from some African-American members who oppose gambling on moral grounds, reflecting the views of influential religious leaders in their districts.

The logistical difficulty of rounding up the state's 188 part-time lawmakers is an issue, said House Democratic leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County.

Members are charged with being in Annapolis for the regular 90-day session each January through early April. This year, members postponed summer plans to clear time for O'Malley's originally proposed special session the week of July 9. Some are now locked into vacations or other commitments that will take them out of the state or country.

"Without passing judgment on the issue," Barve said, "it is hard in July and August to do these things."

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