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Gambling work group makes decisions behind closed doors

Members of a state work group on expanding gambling met behind closed doors for about four hours Monday, agreeing to recommend that Maryland allow table games at its casinos and keep its current cap of 15,000 slot machines statewide, according to several people who attended the session.

Still unresolved, according to three sources, are the thorny questions of whether to allow a casino in Prince George's County in addition to the five now approved and whether the state's 67 percent tax rate on slots revenue should be reduced.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would call the General Assembly into special session next month to act on a gambling bill if a proposal seemed likely to pass.

Members of the work group agreed Monday that if table games are permitted, they should be taxed at 20 percent — twice the rate proposed in a gambling bill approved by the Senate this year. They also agreed that in the future, casino owners should be responsible for purchasing slot machines. Currently, the state pays for the machines.

"It was a good, long discussion," O'Malley's chief legislative officer, Joseph C. Bryce, said after the meeting. "A lot of numbers were thrown around."

Dan Friedman, a lawyer with the state attorney general's office, wrote in a letter that the work group is permitted under Maryland law to meet in private because all but one of its members work for the state. A Baltimore Sun reporter and an aide to Senate Republican leader E.J. Pipkin were barred from the meeting.

"If this isn't a sad example of the proverbial 'smoky back room,' I don't know what is," Pipkin said.

The 11-member work group is set to have its final public meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Annapolis.

MGM Resorts International announced last week that it would partner with the Peterson Cos. to build a $800 million casino and resort at National Harbor in Prince George's County if the state allows table games and slashes the tax rate on slots proceeds from 67 percent to 52 percent. MGM also wants the state to allow more slot machines than currently permitted.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has expressed concerns about expanding gambling in the state, reiterated Monday that it would be a "challenge" to round up the 71 votes needed in his chamber to pass a bill allowing another casino and said he's "not making any predictions" as to whether another session will be called.

"I think a lot of complex issues are involved," Busch said. Adding a sixth casino would be possible only if "you can mitigate the lost market share" for the current operators, Busch said.

David Cordish, owner of the Maryland Live Casino, which opened at Arundel Mills this month, adamantly opposes adding another casino.

Members of the work group on Monday asked its legislative staff to calculate projected revenue for the state if the slots tax rate were lowered to 52 percent.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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