The debate over a proposed casino inPrince George's Countythat encompassed much of the time and attention of state lawmakers during the waning hours of the General Assembly session April 9 was so hectic that Del. Frank Turner had to hide from reporters and lobbyists.
"They wanted information I couldn't give them," said Turner, a Democrat who represents North Laurel and chairs the House subcommittee that deals with gambling legislation. "I decided to take a little break, and sit back in the capitol and wait for the full committee to meet."
Legislation to authorize a sixth gambling site in the state "became a very contentious issue" at the end of session, Turner said. Like other leaders in the House, he believes Senate President Mike Miller's insistence on passing the gambling measure is what prevented the legislature from approving revenue-enhancement legislation that was needed to balance the state budget.
"He used the budget as an arguing chip for the sixth casino inPrince George's County," Turner said.
Miller, whose name has been dragged through the mud in the week since the end of session budget debacle, has repeatedly said that it was time, not the gambling bill, that caused the General Assembly to adjourn without passing the revenue bills, thus triggering the so-called "doomsday budget" that features $500 million in cuts to Democratic funding priorities such as education and health care.
House leaders, however, blame Miller, a Democrat who represents part ofPrince George's County.
"We're going back to special session mainly because the president of the Senate wouldn't let the entire budget go," Turner said. "That's very disingenuous as far as I'm concerned to hold a revenue bill that's part of the budget up on the sixth casino."
Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, came to Miller's defense.
"I obviously don't think that's an accurate portrayal of all the facts," Kasemeyer said of the assertion that Miller held up revenue bills that would have raised income taxes on six-figure earners and shifted a portion of teacher pension costs to the counties because of the grim prospects of the gambling bill.
Kasemeyer said "no one really knows all the answers" as to what happened regarding the budget in the final hours of the 90-day legislative session, and he doesn't want to get involved in name-calling.
Support for casino location
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker had been supporting the bill because of its potential to boost county revenues and promote economic development. Though the original Senate bill did not specify a location for the casino, Baker had pushing for the National Harbor development.
Brad Frome, Baker's deputy chief of staff, said a casino at National Harbor "would be the most lucrative for the state by far."
Refuting concerns about a Prince George's casino impacting the five that have already been approved, Frome said the National Harbor facility — "a hop, skip and a jump over the river from Virginia and D.C. where there is no gambling" — would draw a "tremendous" amount of visitors from out of state.
"This is a place that isn't focused on a central Maryland as its primary market," he said. "It's focused on a market that basically is untapped and will be untapped."
If Gov.Martin O'Malleycalls a special session to address the legislature's failure to pass revenue enhancements during the general session, Frome said the county administration is hoping the casino bill will be an item of discussion.
The bill that the Senate came up with, which would have authorized another 4,750 slot machines at a casino in Prince George's County and allowed all slot license holders to offer table games, did not please the House.
"When that bill left the Senate it was dressed up like a Christmas tree with all kind of goodies for everybody," Turner said.
Turner said the problem many delegates saw is additional slot machines being approved before all five slot facilities the legislature authorized in 2007 could open. Because there is insufficient data to support that a sixth slots site would be successful, Turner proposed a table games-only facility for Prince George's County.
The Senate balked at Turner's idea and came up with a plan that put in fewer slot machines, but it still didn't have the votes to pass the House.
Turner, in his role as the chairman of the Finance Resources Subcommittee, has tried to prevent the proliferation of gambling in the state. He gets bills every year from delegates proposing to have slot machines in VFWs, fire halls, airports, bars, etc.
"There is a saturation point where you can only have so many of them (before the other sites will fail)," Turner said. "What I'm trying to do is slow all this gambling down."