Busch says priority in gambling bill is revenue for state

Speaker Michael E. Busch told fellow Democrats in the House of Delegates on Wednesday night that his top priority in legislation to expand gambling is to "generate significant new revenue for the state."

In an email to his Democratic caucus, Busch said that any revision to the gambling program should put Maryland on a par with surrounding states — possibly including Internet gambling as well as a long-discussed proposal for table games.

The message was the most detailed to date from Busch about legislation that will be the subject of a special session of the General Assembly next week. A proposal being drafted by the governor's office would allow a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located inPrince George's County, and permit table games at all six. Currently, the state permits only slot machines.

Busch's statement came as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was urging Baltimore legislators not to use the gambling bill as leverage for a wish list of city goals and as lawmakers considered a litany of demands fromthe Cordish Cos., which operate the Maryland Live casino.

In his email, Busch said the five Maryland jurisdictions that now are host to casinos should be "held harmless" by any expansion into Prince George's County. And he said Prince George's voters must have the final say about whether to allow a casino there. He pledged that his caucus would "focus on the public interest" rather than private demands.

Rawlings-Blake, in a letter to the city's House delegation, urged them not to endanger passage of a bill that would allow table games at the planned casino downtown.

"I understand the desire to leverage the most from your vote, but to me, the idea of a new $50 million per year funding source is the prize," the mayor wrote, referring to the added revenue the city expects if its casino can offer games such as blackjack and poker.

The city delegation met Wednesday night to discuss the legislation. Some city delegates have been wary of the proposal, expressing concern that a Prince George's casino would cut into the revenue expected from Baltimore's. A group led by gambling giant Caesars Entertainment was awarded a state license Tuesday to open a casino on Russell Street near the Camden Yards stadium complex.

Several delegates, among them the chairman of the city delegation, Curt Anderson, have said they might vote against the bill unless pressing city needs — including a steady source of money for school construction and increased bonding authority for such projects — are addressed in the special session. The prospect that city lawmakers would force legislative leaders to horse-trade for their votes has led to concerns that other delegations would do the same.

The mayor followed her letter with a plea at Wednesday night's meeting. "I don't want us on the other side of a special session looking at a list of things we didn't get," she said.

Anderson said he respects the mayor's position but questioned whether linking other issues to the gambling bill would be as dangerous as she believes. "I want to make sure the House and Senate leadership know of our No. 1 priority, which is building schools, not building casinos," he said.

Meanwhile, Joe Weinberg, a top official of the Cordish Cos., met with members of the Anne Arundel County House delegation Tuesday and delivered a list of provisions Cordish would want to see in any gambling expansion bill. Cordish has argued that allowing a new casino would be unfair to its business at Arundel Mills.

Among other terms, Cordish wants to prohibit a casino from opening at National Harbor for several years, to limit the number of slot machines there, and to slash the tax rate on slot machine revenue from the current 67 percent to 55 percent to offset the expected reduction in revenue from the added competition.

The Cordish Cos. want an additional 8 percentage points knocked off the slots tax rate as compensation for taking over from the state the responsibility for buying slot machines. That would lower the rate to 47 percent. Cordish also wants the ability to offer casino gambling over the Internet, with a 10 percent tax rate.

Before a gambling bill is introduced, Cordish wants to review any draft legislation and wants a "handshake" agreement with leadership that the measure would not change in the legislative process. "It will either pass or not pass as written," according to a memo presented to lawmakers.

The list was first reported by The Washington Post's Annapolis politics blog.

Weinberg sent out a statement Wednesday reiterating the companies' opposition to gambling expansion.

"It is obvious that if another mega casino is added to the already saturated Baltimore/Washington market, significant tax rate and other adjustments must be made," Weinberg said. "The Baltimore/Washington corridor cannot sustain three mega destination casinos, plus Charles Town, West Virginia, with Maryland having the highest tax rate in the U.S."