House moving slowly through gambling bill, increases tax breaks for casino operators

Members of the House of Delegates weren't called to the floor for a debate on the controversial gambling expansion bill until 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, although legislators had been asked to be back by 2 p.m.

Welcome to what for many Harford County legislators, at least, has been the exasperating second special legislative session of 2012.

"Yesterday [Monday] we were supposed to return to the floor at 4 p.m. and we never returned to the floor and we left Annapolis after 9 p.m.," wrote a frustrated Del. Susan McComas Tuesday afternoon. "I must admit that it is now rope a dope time."

Although the Senate in just two days last week was able to read, make amendments and vote on the legislation that would add a sixth casino in the state, in Prince George's County, and add table games to existing slots casinos in the state – including Hollywood Casino in Perryville - the House is working at a much slower pace.

Monday night a House committee approved tax breaks for some Maryland casinos 13-7, more so than what was asked for in Gov. Martin O'Malley's original version of the gambling bill.

'Stuck in limbo'

Sen. Barry Glassman sympathized with House members, saying they have been "stuck in limbo" the last few days.

Glassman, a Republican who represents the northern half of the county, believes the special session will end by Wednesday night, no matter what happens with amendments to the gambling bill, because the senate president "kind of wants" the session to be over and done with.

After the House has voted, the bill will go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

"It's a do or die move," Glassman said Tuesday. "I think [Wednesday] will be the last day either way if the bills don't move."

The House still had a lot of work to do Tuesday afternoon.

The senator said there were 56 pages of House amendments to go through and vote on.

Glassman offered his own amendment Friday that, had it passed, would have allowed slot machines in the county's American Legions and VFWs. The amendment failed 19-23 and, as a result, Glassman voted against the gambling bill on the Senate floor.

"it's giving more to the casino operators," he said of the latest House version of the bill. "It's a free give-away to Baltimore City and Prince George's County."

Pit bull legislation

Though gambling was supposed to be the main reason for this special session, going on at the same time is the debate over pit bull legislation.

"I think that the House Judiciary Committee produced a good bill in response to the Solesky decision that overturned the Maryland Common Law regarding dog bites," explained McComas, a Republican who represents the Bel Air and Abingdon areas. "The Justices in the Court of Appeals determined that pit bulls were inherently dangerous dogs and the dog's owners as well as landlords were strictly liable for the damages incurred by pit bulls."

The House's bill, she continued, attempts to modify the effect of this decision, finding "strict liability for owners that allow their dogs to run at large outside of their control."

The bill would also exempt landlords, condominium associations, housing cooperatives or homeowners associations, kennels, veterinary hospitals, units of state or local government that conduct animal control, shelters, dog walkers, keepers of dogs or pet shops from liability.

"The House bill reaffirms the civil defenses of contributory negligence, provocation, criminal intent and assumption of risk," McComas wrote. "The bill has a sunset provision of September 30, 2013. This keeps the General Assembly's feet to the fire to continue to work on this issue in the next regular legislative session for the protection of animals, as well as the public."

Glass' boycott ends

Harford Del. Glen Glass, who had originally boycotted the idea of a second special session, showed up Monday even though he still stands staunchly against the gambling bill.

"It is my understanding that important issues other than gambling, such as pit bulls and gun rights, may now be on the agenda during the special session," an e-mail sent from his house Monday read. "I feel that I have no choice but to be in Annapolis to vote on these important issues."

The pit bull issue is one that hits close to home for the delegate, who represents the southern half of the county.

"I am, myself, a responsible pet owner and Marylanders are being forced out of their homes by their current landlords who face new liability issues under a recent court ruling," the e-mail continued. "Because my constituents and I love animals, I have to fight for them."

The casino deal

Among details in the gambling legislation as it moves along, The Baltimore Sun reported the new Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills would receive a 51 percent tax rate - compared to the current 67 percent - over the next couple years with an option to reduce it further to 49 percent if an independent commission agreed. O'Malley's bill had a reduced rate of 56 percent with an option of going to 51 percent.

The only caveat is casino operators would have to buy the slot machines, rather than rent them from the Maryland Lottery, and spend roughly half of that tax break on promotion and capital investment.

It was not immediately clear how the deeper tax breaks would affect the state, according to The Sun. An additional $200 million a year in revenue was projected in O'Malley's bill with about $70 million coming of from the proposed Prince George's casino.

Also under the House's vote would be a decreased tax rate for the planned casino in Baltimore, now expected to be operated by a group led by Caesars Entertainment, The Sun reported.

The casino's rate would dip to 54 percent with an option to reduce it further to 51 percent. O'Malley's version lowered the rate to 56 percent with the option of going to 51 percent.

Hollywood Casino Perryville could also see even more tax cuts.

Hollywood Casino will be able to make a case to the commission to have 5 percentage points cut from its rate, according to The Sun. Under the original version of the bill, the casino's tax rate would drop to 61 percent to compensate for a new requirement that the company cover the cost of buying slot machines. If the commission agrees, the rate could drop further to 56 percent.

The House did not change the proposed tax rates in O'Malley's bill for the state's other casinos, which stated Worcester County's casino and the planned Allegany County casino would both have a 57 percent tax rate.

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