Busch leaves door open for special session

House Speaker Michael E. Busch left the door open Thursday to continued efforts to reach an agreement on expanded gambling in time to call a special legislative session this summer, saying he expects to talk with the governor and Senate president to try to resolve the remaining issues.

The speaker's conciliatory message came as Gov. Martin O'Malley was releasing a statement in which he blamed the House leadership for the failure of a state work group to reach an accord on a new casino in Prince George's County.

"The commission arrived at a consensus for moving forward to resolve issues around gambling in Maryland. For some reason, the House leadership at the last minute decided they did not want to share in that consensus," the governor said. "Finding common ground will be difficult if House leadership has become invested in the notion that the Anne Arundel site should enjoy a virtual monopoly for as long as possible."

O'Malley's statement was a reference to the newly opened Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills. The chief opponent of a proposal to open a sixth Maryland casino in Prince George's — part of an expansion plan that legislative analysts say could generate more than $200 million a year in added state revenue —- has been David Cordish, CEO of the company that built Maryland Live.

The Senate members and O'Malley's appointees agreed on a plan that would have allowed the sixth site and legalized table games. The three House members dissented, declining to support a cut in the slot machine gambling tax that the other members believed was necessary.

O'Malley said he plans to hold conversations over the next several days with Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and businessman John Morton III, the work group chairman, "to resolve these lingering issues."

Baker, a leading supporter of a proposal to locate a "destination" casino at National Harbor on the Potomac River, has called on the governor and legislators to continue talking in an effort to put the proposed special session back on track. Miller, also a backer of National Harbor's bid, has been conspicuously silent since the work group announced an impasse Wednesday, declining to return phone messages left with his staff.

Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, indicated that he believes the work group's job is over and that he, O'Malley and Miller will have to work out the remaining issues, which he will then discuss with his House leadership team.

"I hope to meet with the governor in the next 24 hours," Busch said. "You have to have an honest conversation with the president of the Senate."

He characterized the results of the work group's deliberations as getting "98 percent" of the way toward a consensus. He noted the panel did agree on allowing table games at all Maryland casinos, setting up a new Gaming Commission and removing restrictions on casino hours.

But Matt Gallagher, the governor's chief of staff and a member of the work group, said the administration believes the two sides are further apart than Busch described.

"I believe the governor would characterize the existing differences as still being sufficient to [prevent] that broader consensus," he said.

Gallagher said the House members' final offer — to allow the sixth casino but to leave the tax rates unchanged — was not viable. He said it's been clear through the work group's deliberations that at least two casinos, Maryland Live and a planned casino in Baltimore, would have to be compensated for the increased competition with some form of tax break.

The governor still has the prerogative of calling a special session, Gallagher said. But he said it might not be possible to keep to the July 9 target date O'Malley had set earlier.

"The governor would really like to see a resolution to this issue," he said. "I think it's difficult, but the governor remains willing to try to work with the House and the Senate."


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