Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller warned Saturday that "time is running out" on efforts to reach an agreement on the state budget for next year without having to go into an extended session but he sent a message to House leaders that he is perfectly willing to do so if necessary.
"If a special session is in the offing, it won't be the fiest time we have been in special session," Miller told reporters as the Senate took a break between meetings. ""I'm certainly willing to work all summer to get the job done we were elected to do."
The General Assembly is scheduled to end its 90-day session Monday night, but failure to pass a budget would trigger an extended session.
Miller spoke minutes after the Maryland Senate gave its preliminary approval to a new, stripped-down version of a gambling expansion bill Saturday afternoon, setting the stage for a possible resolution of a tug-of-war with the House that has apparently delayed a budget agreement.
The already tricky issues surrounding the budget -- including income tax increases, a shift of teacher pensions to the counties and spending priorities -- became even more complicated when gambling arose as a factor in the talks.
In a test vote on the new casino bill Saturday, senators rejected an amendment by a margin that suggested that Miller has the votes for final approval -- perhaps as early as Saturday evening.
The Senate began moving the new bill after it became clear the House intended a full-blown rewrite of an earlier Senate-passed bill that spelled out the details of future rules for gambling in great detail. The House concept would have allowed a sixth gambling site in Maryland -- to be located at National Harbor inPrince George's County-- but with table games only.
After the first Senate session ended Saturday about 3 p.m. Miller said the House approach was unworkable.
"Table games - I appreciate the generosity of the House," said Miller. "The table games are the icing on the cake. They're not the cake."
The new Senate bill would put the broad parameters of a gambling expansion up for a statewide referendum in November. Voters would be asked to approve a plan allowing aPrince George's Countysite, allowing table games for all facilities with a slots license and expanding the number of slot machines allowed in all state facilities by 1,000 -- from 15,000 to 16,000.
There would be no separate Prince George's County referendum, which had been a provision of the original Senate bill. Calling such a referendum would have required a constitutional amendment, which requires a supermajority in each chamber. Miller said the new version will not require a constitutional change, meaning a bill could pass the House with 71 votes rather than 85.
House leaders had pointed to the 85-vote threshold as a reason why they could not gain approval of any bill allowing slots in Prince George's.
The new Senate bill would also preclude the opening of any new Prince George's casino before July 1, 2015, so that all of the issues surrounding the expansion can be worked out. Sen. Richard Madaleno, the bill's floor leader, said the extended time would give Prince George's officials an opportunity to have a say through the zoning process.
In his comments, Miller also signaled that he now agrees with County Executive Rushern Baker that National Harbor is the best site for a new destination casino in Prince George's. He spoke expansively about the site's amenities, including multiple restaurants and its riverside location -- advantages a rival site at Rosecroft Raceway does not share.
Miller said Penn National, the operator of Rosecroft, was opposing the new Senate bill. A lobbyist for National Harbor, W. Minor Carter, said earlier that his client opposed the House concept but backed Miller's new approach.
It was unclear late Saturday what degree of agreement might exist between the Senate and House on the new approach. After a cancellation of a scheduled morning meeting of the budget conferees, negotiators were planning to resume talks at 3 p.m. How those progress could be an indicator of whether the House and Senate are moving toward each others' position on the casino issue.In his comments,