Neall on deck for slots commission

The Baltimore Sun

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a leading force behind the legalization of slot machines in Maryland, intends to pick a longtime slots opponent for a commission that will award lucrative gambling licenses, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Miller's likely appointment of Robert R. Neall, a former state legislator and Anne Arundel County executive, surprised even Neall. The choice underscores a desire to staff the commission - which will have the power to create gambling fortunes for successful bidders - with members who are perceived as beyond reproach.

Miller also plans to pick James H. Taylor, a retired judge who broke racial barriers over his long career, for the commission, sources said.

"If I didn't think that I could exercise impartial judgment on this, I would decline to serve," said Neall, the former finance director for the Johns Hopkins Health System who now runs an affiliated health care organization.

"I am not getting on this thing to become some sort of obstacle [to slots] or anything like that," he said, though he acknowledged he was "a little surprised" when Miller approached him early last month.

The 60-year-old Davidson resident said his "single, focused objective" would be to select gambling operators providing the best return to the state. Under a constitutional amendment ratified by voters last month, casinos with a total of 15,000 slot machines could be established in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties.

This week, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced his appointment of Greater Baltimore Committee leader Donald C. Fry as chairman of the seven-member slots commission. O'Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch will each appoint two additional commissioners.

Neall, a Maryland political insider widely respected for his fiscal acumen, served in the House of Delegates for more than a decade and became county executive in Anne Arundel County in 1990. He later won election to the Senate and served on the budget committee. A friend of Miller's, Neall switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 1999 and was defeated in the next election cycle by Sen. Janet Greenip, a conservative Republican who used the party switch as a campaign issue.

Neall clashed publicly with O'Malley in 2004, when the then-Baltimore mayor was preparing a $42 million bailout of the Baltimore public school system to avoid additional state control.

Neall, at the time an unpaid financial adviser to the financially strapped school system, criticized O'Malley's rainy-day-fund loan as fiscally irresponsible. He predicted its failure and a costly state rescue.

In response, one senior O'Malley official likened Neall's handwritten criticism of the plan to a Unabomber letter. The bailout ultimately succeeded, though Neall maintained it was ill-conceived.

When asked about his current relationship with the governor, Neall said yesterday, "I don't know," though he noted that he asked Miller to "check and make sure it was OK with the administration" before making the appointment.

Taylor spent 18 years on Prince George's County Circuit Court and became the county's first black judge in the late 1960s. He left the bench for private practice and worked as a consultant to then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who later was elected governor, to help minority-owned businesses.

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An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall as a Davidson resident. He is a resident of Davidsonville. The Sun regrets the errors.
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