Work Group: No consensus for special session on Prince George's casino

It's unlikely, but not out of the question, a special session will be called this summer to pass legislation authorizing a sixth casino in Prince George's County and sending the issue to voters in November.

The state Work Group to Consider Gaming Expansion on June 20, after nearly a full day of closed-session deliberations, announced that it did not have a broad enough consensus to recommend moving forward with a special session.


Gov. Martin O'Malley, in forming the work group after the gambling expansion debate engulfed much of the General Assembly's regular 90-day session this year, had said he would call a special session the week of July 9 if the panel reached consensus.

"The Commission arrived at a consensus for moving forward to resolve issues around gambling in Maryland," O'Malley said in a statement June 21. "For some reason, the House leadership at the last minute decided they did not want to share in that consensus. Finding common ground will be difficult if House leadership has become invested in the notion that the Anne Arundel site should enjoy a virtual monopoly for as long as possible."


O'Malley said he would continue to have conversations with the political leaders in the debate to try reach a solution.

Others, too, noted there is still time for an agreement to be reached and a special session to be called.

"This was about creating jobs and opportunity for our citizens in a time when good jobs are hard to find," Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III said in a statement. "I strongly encourage the Governor, Senate President and the Speaker to step in and ask the work group to hammer out an agreement. The people of Maryland deserve a voice in this, and (the June 20) events appear to have put their chance to be included in jeopardy."

Expansion of gambling, such as the sixth casino or the addition of table games, must receive voter approval. Without a special session, the next time these issues could be addressed is in the 2014 election, in which state legislators are up for re-election.

Though the work group did agree on many points — adding table games to the five already-authorized casino sites, transitioning ownership of slot machines from the state to operators and establishing a state gaming commission — the debate over the sixth casino in Prince George's County, and whether or not to lower the state's cut of slots revenues to accommodate it, proved to be too tough an issue for all 11 members to concur.

"It was push-pull during the entire three weeks," the work group's chairman John Morton III said.

The vote to move forward with the work group's recommendations was 8-3, with the three House members dissenting.

"We got stuck up on one issue, the issue of the sixth site and the tax rate," said District 13 Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat who represents North Laurel and other parts of southeastern Howard County.

The tax rate Turner is referring to is the state's 67 percent cut on slots revenues, which it disperses among various funds, primarily the Education Trust Fund.

The work group's recommendation on the sixth casino was to authorize up to 3,000 slot machines at a site in Prince George's County with an opening date of July 2016 or later. Despite the push for a casino at National Harbor and interest from MGM Resorts International, the world's largest casino operator, the work group recommended the location be open to a competitive bidding process.

Del. Peter Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat, said House members were willing to support the sixth casino under the condition that the 67 percent tax rate not be lowered.

"That was the sticking point," Hammen said.

However, developers of National Harbor, the politically favored location for a Prince George's casino, said they would not be able to build a high-class facility without the state lowering the tax rate, thus increasing the operators' share of revenues.

Turner said the other members of the work group — three senators, four members of O'Malley's administration and Morton — were supportive of lowering the tax for a new Prince George's casino and the Anne Arundel and Baltimore locations it would compete with, but the House members weren't going to go for it.

"All six (House) members, the voting and non-voting members, thought that the tax rate should be determined by what everyone else was paying," Turner said. "And if there was going to be any change in that tax rate, let the commission make that decision."

Turner was referring to the gaming commission the work group recommended the state form and give the power to adjust tax rates for the casinos within a 5 percent margin.

With the six House representatives not in agreement — views Morton said "may reflect the more broadly held view of their colleagues" — the issue is unlikely to resolve itself in time for a special session this summer, which was needed if the issue were to make it on the November ballot.

"I'm disappointed that the people are not going to be able to vote on this," Laurel's District 23 Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, a Democrat, said.

However, the panel members did not officially rule out the possibility.

"If the will is there ... there's still time if we so choose to exercise it," said Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who served as a non-voting member of the panel.

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