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Lawmakers who backed gambling look now to collect

ElectionsJustice SystemExecutive BranchMartin O'Malley

Now that the governor's proposal to expand gambling in Maryland has passed at the ballot box, some state senators and delegates who backed the controversial measure are looking to collect.

Call it casino capital. Those who stuck out their necks for Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly's presiding officers would like to bring home something to show for it.

Baltimore wants to increase the school system's credit limit so it can renovate buildings, and the city's delegation in Annapolis is hoping to deliver. Baltimore County lawmakers want money to put air conditioning in more schools. In Montgomery County, legislators hope the state will tackle their top priority: funding for transportation projects.

Legislative quid pro quos are nothing new in Annapolis — a recent increase in the alcohol tax passed only after some of the revenue it would bring in the first year was awarded to supportive counties. The backroom deals to secure votes for the casino legislation were more public than usual, in part due to the lengthy haggling that continues even now.

"I think it is a nearly universal phenomenon in legislative bodies," said Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It is a matter of bargaining and cooperation among people. It is human nature."

Legislative leaders could not muster the support needed to pass a gambling measure during the regular 90-day session that ended in April. After months of closed-door meetings with various local delegations, they pressed the issue in an August special session. Lawmakers passed the bill with 71 votes, the bare minimum needed.

The legislation — to allow for a sixth casino in Maryland and the addition of table games at all six sites — stipulated that the law go before voters in November for approval. Question 7 passed handily, and the General Assembly's fiscal analysts predict the measure will generate revenue growing to $200 million a year by 2019.

A spokeswoman for O'Malley, a Democrat, tried to tamp down expectations about how and where the money will be spent. The governor will make decisions based on statewide concerns, said Raquel Guillory. "Will it create jobs?" she said. "Will it mean a better quality of life for Maryland citizens?"

Nevertheless, lawmakers plan to remind O'Malley and legislative leaders of their support for gambling when they make pitches over the next few weeks about their hopes for the 90-day session that begins in January.

The most explicit request is expected to come from Baltimore. All along, members of the city delegation linked their support for gambling to increasing the school system's bonding authority from $100 million to $200 million.

Asked if he expects O'Malley to support that, Del. Curt Anderson, the House delegation chairman, said: "Yes, definitely. When they complete the budget, that should be done."

Fourteen of the city's 18 delegates voted for the legislation during the special session.

Anderson believes there is "an implicit understanding" with State House leaders that "because the city delegates voted for the gambling bill, some of our education priorities would be respected."

In Baltimore County, there's been a shift. During the regular session, the 21-member House delegation tied its support for gambling to a bill that sought to add elected members to the county school board. The proposal had stalled, but in the waning hours of the session, Ways and Means committee members were hauled off the House floor to approve the bill in a last-ditch attempt to gather votes for gambling.

When the gambling bill failed to pass that night, the school board bill was shelved as well.

It remains a priority for Baltimore County delegates, but Del. Johnny Olszewski sees a more natural nexus between their support for gambling and another measure: securing money to make sure all county schools are air-conditioned.

Forty-six public schools — including 31 elementary schools — have no central cooling systems, leaving students to swelter when temperatures soar.

"I want to see every school air-conditioned," said Olszewski, the House delegation chairman. "To the extent that there is new money that is supposed to go to education, use some of the money to help fund those capital requests. ... If you support revenues, I think you are justified in helping the constituents you represent."

A possible hitch in the proposal is the amount of money needed. Baltimore County officials have put the price tag at $600 million. Next year's expected take from the gambling bill is $18 million statewide.

In some areas, local leaders plan a more subtle approach. In Montgomery County, lawmakers may remind the governor and Democratic leaders of the gambling vote as they ask for support on transportation spending.

"There is not a direct connection to gambling, but we did deliver on gambling, and transportation funding has been a consistent need for us," said Del. Anne Kaiser, the chair of the county's House delegation.

"Isn't that always true?" she said. "When you are supportive ... there's not an expectation, but an assumption that there will be some openness to looking at our priorities."

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