The 41-member House Republican caucus vowed yesterday to vote as a bloc against efforts to legalize casino gambling in Maryland, the largest group of state lawmakers to take a public position on the issue thus far.
While no specific casino proposal has been drafted for the legislative session that opens in January, the Republican pledge clearly gives casino opponents a strong base in what could prove to be a close vote.
Caucus Chairman Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County said GOP delegates felt no need to wait for a state task force studying the casino issue to make its recommendations in December.
"Frankly, this was not a difficult decision for most of us. Our instincts ran strongly against gambling from the start," he said.
Democrats and casino lobbyists alike called the announcement premature and said Republicans should have waited until the task force report is done.
"I always say you have to hear the case before you make a decision on it," said Prince George's County Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee that will consider casino bills in the House.
James J. Doyle Jr., a lobbyist for Nevada-based Primadonna Resorts, called it "unfortunate that many legislators took a position before they have an opportunity to determine the issue the way these issues are normally determined: through public hearings."
Mr. Kittleman said that of the 41 Republicans, 38 oppose casino gambling and none supports it. Three, he said, did not want to take a public position at this time, although he refused to identify them, saying that could make them targets for casino lobbyists.
There are 141 members in the House of Delegates. A constitutional majority of 71 is required to pass legislation.
"What we're saying is, if casino gambling passes the House of Delegates, it is going to pass with Democratic votes. It will get little or no Republican votes," Mr. Kittleman said.
Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist representing another Nevada casino company, Harveys Casino Resorts, told the Associated Press that the Republican position "is certainly something we are going to have to factor into our vote count. But this issue is a long way from being over."
If all 41 Republicans stick together, only 30 Democratic votes would be needed by casino foes.
"I don't think [the Republicanannouncement] puts the Democrats on the spot," said Democratic Majority Leader John Adams Hurson of Montgomery County. "There are a lot of Democrats who oppose gambling, too."
Two weeks ago, after a Maryland Chamber of Commerce panel came out in favor of casino gaming, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Marylanders should instead "place our bets on good fiscal management, education and hard work."
Some House Republicans -- whose numbers increased in the 1994 election from 25 to 41 -- suggested the casino issue may not even win enough votes to emerge from the Judiciary Committee, in part due to their opposition.
One of the seven Republicans on the 22-member committee, Del. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, said casino opponents on the panel outnumber backers by a margin of "three or four votes."
"The votes aren't there in our committee," she said, although she and other lawmakers acknowledged that could change by the time a final vote is taken.
"As long as there is all that money [to hire lobbyists] coming in to pass this, there is a real and present danger that casino gambling could be adopted in the face of overwhelming opposition by the public," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican.
Mr. Kittleman dismissed the casino proposals as "a zero-sum game, destroying as many jobs as it creates." The Republicans oppose casinos, he said, because of the "corrosive effect" they have on society, especially by promoting "the concept that luck beats hard work and that you can get something for nothing," and because the public does not want them.
He and other Republicans predicted that casinos will increase the number of compulsive gamblers in the state, lead to child and spousal abuse, and result in an increase in crime.
"Maryland has a rich history of political corruption and, given the experience of other states, there is no doubt in my mind that elected officials will end up in prison," Mr. Kittleman said.