House Speaker Michael Busch

House Speaker Michael Busch leaves Government House after a meeting with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 24, 2012)

Gov. Martin O'Malley and top leaders of the General Assembly are considering the possibility of holding two special legislative sessions — one in May to deal with the state budget and another in summer to consider an expansion of casino gambling in Maryland.

O'Malley disclosed the possible plan Tuesday in Baltimore, shortly after he met in Annapolis with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to discuss the prospect of calling senators and delegates back to the capital to raise taxes and avert about $500 million in cuts to popular programs.

While the three leaders — all Democrats — reached no final agreement, the governor said that it was a cordial meeting and that progress had been made on resolving budget issues left over from the regular session, which ended April 9.

In separate interviews, both Miller and Busch said they were open to the idea of holding two special sessions. Busch said legislative leaders were looking at the week of May 14-18 as the most likely time for the special session on budget issues.

While the governor mentioned August as the likely time for a session dealing with casinos, the two presiding officers both said late July was also a possibility.

Busch appeared optimistic that legislative leaders would be able to work out their differences and avoid the cuts that would otherwise take effect July 1.

"If everybody keeps lines of communication open and continues to have a dialogue, we can work our way through this," Busch said. He said it is important to resolve the budget issues to avoid severe cuts to education, layoffs of state employees and steep tuition increases at Maryland's public colleges and universities.

But House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said there's no need for one special session — let alone two.

"It's a horrible idea. They've lost their minds," the Calvert County Republican said.

On the last night of the annual 90-day session, the legislature passed a "doomsday" budget with cuts that would have been avoided had the Assembly approved bills raising income taxes and shifting some of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties. Because the legislature failed to pass those measures before time ran out, the state budget includes cuts in the areas of K-12 schools, higher education and health that leading Democrats did not intend to take effect.

"We really want to resolve this budget issue," O'Malley said Tuesday. "This budget would do a lot of damage." The three leaders recognize that "we have to resolve it separate from the gaming issue," the governor said.

"When this issue of gaming becomes intertwined with the budget, it makes consensus very, very hard to find on either," he said.

Miller has strongly supported a proposal that would ask state voters to allow a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George's County, and to allow table games at all six. O'Malley and Busch have suggested that Miller allowed the revenue bills to fail because the gambling proposal appeared to be in trouble in the House.

The Senate president has insisted the issues were not linked, an assertion he repeated Tuesday. But he continued to defend a proposed casino at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George's, which he represents.

"It's not about me. It's about a billion-dollar investment. It's about 6,000 jobs," he said.

The governor said that if the Assembly were to pass legislation on gambling in August, there would be enough time to put a referendum — which would be expected as part of any gambling bill — on this fall's ballot.

According to O'Malley, he and the legislative leaders also discussed creating a commission to regulate aspects of gambling that are currently dealt with in legislation, an idea the governor favors. He said technical issues such as the "splits" of table games and slot machines should be decided by professionals instead of becoming "a jump ball in the General Assembly every two years."

Currently, the Maryland Lottery oversees some gambling-related issues while a separate commission oversees the locations where slot machines are permitted. O'Malley said he, Miller and Busch talked about consolidating control of casinos under one regulator.

Busch said he liked the idea, noting that New Jersey and Pennsylvania have a single commission that oversees casino gambling.