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O'Malley says prospects of a special session at 50-50

OCEAN CITY -- Gov. Martin O'Malley  put the chances of calling a special session on gambling expansion at "fifty-fifty" and said in an interview that he plans to reach out to members of the House of Delegates to gauge interest in legislation that would allow a sixth casino.

"I need to take the temperature of both Democrats and Republicans," said O'Malley, speaking to reporters after attending a high-dollar fundraiser for an effort to defend the new same-sex marriage law.

O'Malley stressed one finding that emerged from a work group he convened to look at adding a sixth casino in  Prince George's County and adding table games: Department of Legislative Service analysts estimate that another casino could net the state at least $200 million.

Work group negotiations collapsed last week, when three House delegates did not agree to a proposal that included lowering the tax rate on casino operators. The lower rate allows for a more elaborate casino and is intended as a sweetener to current casino owners who would lose significant market share if another is added.

O'Malley said he is trying to determine whether the talks broke down because of concerns held by the three delegates, or if the collapse signals opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"If this was a dynamic that was limited to the three of them, I'm sure the Speaker has the ability to take a deep breath, talk to his members and get us back on track," O'Malley said.

"If, on the other hand, their last-minute abandonment of this consensus-building process is a message that the Speaker is opposed and his leadership is opposed and that he will be pulling out all stops to keep us from achieving a consensus on a sixth site and table games, then that is a much harder proposition."

O'Malley continued: "The Speaker has told me he was surprised by the dynamic that led to the abandonment of the consensus by the three House members, so we continue to talk."

The governor said he'd be open to calling a special session after July 9, if it seemed it would be productive. Any question going to the 2012 ballot must be finalized by August 20.

O'Malley also said he'd be likely to introduce a bill that is substantially similar to the ideas the Senate and Administration members on the work group agreed to. The majority of the work group favored a plan that would have allowed a casino in Prince George's County with 3,000 slots machines. It would not be able to open before July 2016. Also, the majority agreed to a system that could allow a slots tax rate as low as 62 percent in Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City.

O'Malley said Tuesday that he was reluctant to submit a bill only on expanding table games, a concept that seems to have wide support from the members of the House and Senate. "It would only dig the heels of existing site owners in deeper in resisting a site in Prince George's County," O'Malley said.

He said Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is "pretty adamant" about building a casino. The governor said members of the delegation are also supportive "because given the tough votes" they have had to cast. The General Assembly just voted to increase income taxes on some Marylanders.

O'Malley acknowledged that it would be challenging for him to find the votes in the House of Delegates. He also floated the possibility of trying to ban gambling interests from contributing to politicians in Maryland, saying the idea would reduce influence casino operators could hold over lawmakers.

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