Comptroller Peter Franchot used the occasion Wednesday of his first vote on the Board of Public Works in favor of a casino deal to denounce Gov. Martin O'Malley's tentative plan to call a special session of the General Assembly to approve an expansion of gambling in Maryland.
With O'Malley sitting alongside, Franchot said he was departing from his decade-long opposition to increased gambling to vote for a deal between the state and Evitts Resort LLC under which the company will take over the money-losing Rocky Gap lodge in Allegany County and install slot machines there. Franchot explained that he was supporting the deal in order to get rid of a ""one of the biggest white elephants ever imposed on the taxpayers of this state."
Franchot expressed relief that the deal, under which the state and the quasi-public Maryland Economic Development Corp. will write off losses in the neighborhood of $40 million, will apparently spare the board from having to consider and further "byzantine ideas to restructure debt" to keep the lights on at the resort and conference center outside Cumberland. The deal won the approval of the three-member board unanimously.
But to O'Malley's obvious annoyance, his fellow Democrat took the opportunity to denounce the prospect of a special session next month to ratify what he described as a "sweetheart deal" on the state's slots tax rate for MGM at National Harbor in Prince George's County. Franchot said such a special session would be an "embarrassment" to the state.
Franchot, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2014 after O'Malley leaves office, essentially took the side of David Cordish, chief executive of the company that built the recently owned Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills, in arguing that the state would be breaking faith with the current slots license holders if the legislature approves a sixth casino site in addition to the five now permitted. A work group set up by O'Malley will be meeting afternoon to try to reach consensus on legislation that would permit a referendum on a proposal to allow that sixth casino and to permit table games at all of the slots sites in Maryland.
But the comptroller went beyond that to link the state's increased reliance on gambling revenues to an increase in the state's unemployment in recent months and to what he described as an inhospitable business climate in Maryland -- both sensitive subjects with O'Malley.
"We just have to grow up in Maryland and put this obsession with slot machines back on the toy shelf where it belong," he said.
When Franchot concluded, O'Malley icily said there was much he'd like to say in reply but didn't want to take up more time.
"I'll reserve my response for another day," the governor said.