The General Assembly convenes Thursday for a special session on the expnsion of gambling, and at least one legislator — Del. Glen Glass of Harford and Cecil counties — has said he won't show up. There's no telling whether his fellow Republicans will join him in his boycott. The GOP, particularly in the House of Delegates, has opposed the push for a special session, both because of the expense involved and because they contend it is unlikely to produce well-thought-out legislation. Since an absence is the same as a no vote, they may be tempted to underscore their objections by leaving empty seats in the chamber.
We hope they don't. Even if their presence wouldn't change the outcome, it is important for Marylanders to hear their voices. The attention of the entire state will be focused on Annapolis in the coming days, and the public deserves to hear the fullest possible debate on the issue.
It also happens that in this case, the Republicans are entirely right. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell and Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio put it well in a statement they issued after Gov.Martin O'Malleycalled the special session late last month: "The harrowing pressure cooker of a get-it-done-quick special session is not the place to debate an issue as complex as the expansion of gaming in Maryland. There will be little to no time for public comment, and as we saw in the closed-door meetings of the gaming workgroup, transparency will be nonexistent."
Indeed, the scope of the legislation the General Assembly is expected to consider is vast. Not only will lawmakers likely be asked to decide whether Marylanders should get the chance to vote on a referendum authorizing a sixth casino and table games, but they may also decide on a wide range of other gambling issues. Among them: whether casino operators should be required to purchase their own slot machines — and how much they should be compensated for that; whether restrictions on hours of operation should be eased; whether political contributions from casino operators should be banned; whether future gambling expansions should be prohibited for a period of years; and whether the state should become the second in the nation to authorize Internet gambling. We say "likely" and "may" because the governor has yet to release the precise details of the bill he will introduce.
The do-or-die nature of a special session fosters a climate of horse trading and side deals. Baltimore City delegates have actually made their demands public — they want higher bonding authority for city schools and other concessions to speed school construction and renovation. When gambling expansion was on the table at the end of the regular General Assembly session, Baltimore County delegates were holding out for consideration of a bill creating a partially elected school board. Other delegations — particularly Democrat-rich Montgomery County — would be in a strong position to make demands of their own that are wholly unrelated to the matter at hand.
And as much as cynics may doubt it, the 90-day, regular General Assembly session provides a structure for thoughtful consideration of the kinds of issues that Governor O'Malley and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate are now trying to cram into a few days. The prolonged process of committee hearings, debates and floor votes over a three-month period provides ample opportunity for a wide variety of perspectives — from legislators, interested parties and the general public — to contribute meaningfully to the final product. Even in the marathon tax-and-gambling special session of 2007, that wasn't really the case. (Witness the ill-fated tech tax.) If Republicans choose to boycott the special session, they are taking a bad situation and making it worse.
Besides, the Republicans can make their point about the foolishness of this special session much more effectively from the State House than from outside it. If they want to drive home the expense of the session — which consists mostly of the cost of per diem allowances for legislators — they can sleep in their offices or bunk together in the homes of legislators who live in and around Annapolis. Instead of expensing meals, they can hold brown bag lunches on the capitol's steps.
And there's always the chance that, through the questions they ask in committee or the speeches they make on the House and Senate floors, they will actually convince somebody of their position — if not in the legislative chambers, then at least in the general public.