With time growing short to call a special General Assembly session on gambling legislation, House Speaker Michael E. Busch plans to huddle with his leadership team Wednesday as top Democrats assess whether there are enough votes to justify calling lawmakers back to Annapolis.
Interviews with leading legislators suggest that Busch faces an uphill climb in trying to build a majority to back a measure that would allow a casino in Prince George's County and open the state to table games such as poker and craps.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have thrown their support behind such a plan, but Busch is facing resistance in his Democratic ranks and outright opposition to a special session among Republican delegates.
Wednesday's 4 p.m. meeting is one of a series called by political leaders in recent weeks to try to put a gambling deal on track for a special session this summer. Legislation to expand gambling would also have to go before voters on the November ballot. The time for a decision on whether to call a special session is getting close, top lawmakers said.
"It can't go on too much longer," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. He said a decision is likely by Monday because legislators from across Maryland would have to make plans to return to the capital.
"You've got to give people at least a week's notice," Davis said.
As of Tuesday, Busch and other legislators said they were still waiting to see a casino bill from the governor's office. The governor had expressed hope that he could produce a draft by the end of last week.
"It's still a work in progress," said Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman. She said O'Malley was working the phones and chief legislative officer Joseph Bryce was holding talks with legislators.
Bryce said his office delivered key language to Baltimore's House delegation Friday on how the administration would preserve revenue for the city and for Anne Arundel County if a new casino were to open in Prince George's.
The O'Malley administration is proposing to pool tax revenue earmarked for local aid from slot machines in the city, Anne Arundel and Prince George's and divide it in thirds. Baltimore, where a casino license could be awarded as early as next week, and Anne Arundel, home to the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills, would be protected from any cut in aid after the opening of a Prince George's casino, the proposal says. The 18-member city House delegation had been expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue, but its chairman, Del. Curt Anderson, said Tuesday that the meeting had been postponed for a week.
Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a member of Busch's leadership team, said he remains unconvinced by O'Malley's proposal.
Rosenberg said he appreciates language that would hold Baltimore "harmless" on local aid, but he said the governor could not count on his vote without a similar promise on school funding. Some proposals on the table would cut the percentage of slots revenue directed to schools, though supporters of expansion said the addition of a Prince George's casino and table games would more than make up for any percentage decrease.
"I can't vote for a bill that doesn't hold the Education Trust Fund harmless," Rosenberg said.
Baltimore Dels. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Jill P. Carter questioned the need for a special session on gambling, saying the state has more pressing issues.
House leaders likely would need strong support from delegations in the city, Montgomery County and Prince George's County — all Democratic strongholds — to reach the 71 votes needed for passage.
Lawmakers said the gambling expansion proposal faces a challenge in the two suburban Washington counties. Davis, who supports a casino at National Harbor, said two or three people in the 23-member Prince George's County delegation are die-hard opponents of gambling and the votes of two or three others are uncertain.
Del. Anne Kaiser, who chairs the Montgomery County delegation, said her 24-member delegation includes at least four or five committed casino opponents. Others have yet to be sold on a specific plan. Many Montgomery delegates are waiting to see how much support there is in the Prince George's and Baltimore delegations before deciding how to vote, she said.
Busch confirmed that he met Tuesday with David Cordish, chief executive of the company that developed the Arundel Mills casino and an opponent of the proposal to allow another at National Harbor.
Busch would say little about the meeting, telling reporters he was "just getting information."