Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation Wednesday asking voters to approve expanded gambling in Maryland as supporters and opponents prepared for what could be a bruising referendum campaign this fall.
The governor's action capped a whirlwind special session of the General Assembly that ended with passage of the bill in the House of Delegates without a vote to spare Tuesday night. The Senate agreed to the House's changes early Wednesday morning, ending the session.
If voters approve the changes, the measure will allow a new casino to be built in Prince George's County and permit table games there and at existing locations with slot machines.
The referendum question will join three contentious issues that have been placed on the ballot by petition drives — involving same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and the state's congressional redistricting map.
The casino referendum is expected to pit corporate rivals with deep pockets in a battle for votes.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects Penn National Gaming, which opposed the bill in the legislature, to pull out all the stops in an effort to defeat it at the polls. But Miller said the Cordish Cos., which had argued that the new venue would hurt business at its Arundel Mills casino, had assured him it would sit out the referendum campaign after winning eleventh-hour concessions in the bill.
Asked Wednesday what the companies' plans were and how they view the final bill, Cordish spokesman Joe Weinberg declined to answer.
A spokeswoman for Penn National could not be reached. Legislative leaders said the company, which owns Rosecroft Raceway as well as the Hollywood Casino in Perryville, was unhappy with the provisions allowing a Prince George's casino.
While Rosecroft will be able to seek a casino license there, many lawmakers expect it to have a hard time competing against the National Harbor development on the Potomac, which has advantages in transportation infrastructure, riverfront location and the support of county government. Penn National also has concerns about National Harbor's potential impact on its casino in Charles Town, W.Va.
Largely as a result of its location, National Harbor has attracted Las Vegas giant MGM Resorts International as the intended developer of a casino there. National Harbor and MGM officials both issued statements Wednesday praising the legislature's vote.
Caesars Entertainment, which was recently awarded the license for a casino in downtown Baltimore, also supported the legislation because of its desire to offer table games. The company said the General Assembly action "brings Maryland one step closer to a critical economic development milestone."
The governor said the bill will lead to the creation of 2,300 permanent jobs and raise $200 million a year for education when fully implemented. He added that the measure, if approved by voters, would put the Maryland gambling industry in a good position to compete with surrounding states' casinos, which offer table games now.
O'Malley gave much of the credit for the bill's passage to House Speaker Michael Busch, who joined him for the signing ceremony. It was Busch who mustered the 71 votes needed to pass the legislation in the House, which has been resistant to gambling. In the Senate, where Miller is a leading supporter of gambling, the vote was 32-14. All three men are Democrats.
The bill squeaked through the House after days of deal-making that brought previously skeptical delegates aboard.
Five Republicans found provisions in the bill they thought would be popular in their districts. Del. Rich Impallaria, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said an amendment allowing slots-like machines at veterans' halls helped win his vote. Del. Michael A. McDermott of Worcester County praised the bill's provisions cutting the tax rate for the money-losing Ocean Downs casino in his district.
Wendell Beitzell of Garrett County, LeRoy E. Myers Jr. of Allegany County and Robert Costa of Anne Arundel County were the other Republican delegates who voted yes.
Baltimore's House delegation proved critical to Busch's efforts. City delegates, who had considered presenting a laundry list of demands in return for their support, wound up splitting 14-2, with two not voting, after winning some concessions to protect the Baltimore casino and direct some of the table game revenue to school construction and parks.
Busch said city delegates came around when they saw the benefits to the city from table games and longer hours that the legislation allows. The city's support was even stronger than that of the delegation from Prince George's County, seen by many as the primary beneficiary of the bill. Its delegates voted 15-6 for the bill with two absent.