General Assembly OKs casino bill

The Maryland General Assembly gave final approval to Gov. Martin O'Malley's gambling bill early Wednesday morning, agreeing to allow table games and a sixth casino in the state while also giving new tax breaks to casino owners.

Passage came after the House of Delegates amended the legislation to allow veterans' halls in every county except Montgomery to have slots-like machines — a new element in the gambling debate that appeared to be aimed at winning enough votes to pass the governor's bill.

After debating and dismissing dozens of other proposed amendments, the House approved the measure without a vote to spare, 71-58, and sent it to the Senate shortly before midnight. Senators accepted the House changes, passing the bill 32-14.

O'Malley planned to sign the measure Wednesday at 10 a.m. The legislation will go before voters for approval or defeat on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The bill allows the additional casino, to be located in Prince George's County, and table games such as blackjack at all six. It also would significantly reduce tax rates on slot machine profits for all the currently licensed casinos except Rocky Gap, where rates already are lower. The tax breaks are intended to compensate owners for the additional competition and for the cost of buying slot machines, now purchased by the state.

Lawmakers learned Tuesday that legislative analysts have determined that bigger tax breaks adopted by the House mean the state would reap about 13 percent less revenue from the bill than under O'Malley's original plan.

It would generate an additional $174 million a year in revenue for the state when fully implemented in 2017. Most of that money — $135 million — would come from the state giving up responsibility for buying slot machines. Just $39 million would come from taxes on table games and the new casino.

Casino owners would earn an estimated $525 million in additional revenue, though they would have new costs of buying the machines and staffing table games.

Some in the House chamber objected to allowing gambling at veterans' halls, a proposal rejected just Monday by a House subcommittee.

"This is the kind of thing that will explode slot machine gambling in our state," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Some were upset by the vote trading. "I find it offensive that veterans would ever be used," House Republican Leader Anthony O'Donnell said on the House floor.

But Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, defended the amendment, saying he felt it was "our only shot of getting anything for veterans."

The change would let veterans' organizations install up to five "pull tab" machines, similar to the terminals currently allowed at bingo halls in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. About 150 groups would be eligible to have the machines, according to Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat. He said an organization could take in about $360,000 a year from the machines.

The machines look similar to the slots at the state's casinos, but their internal mechanics are slightly different. Winners and losers are predetermined by a printed roll of tickets inside the terminal.

The House of Delegates started debating O'Malley's bill shortly after 4 p.m. — two hours after it was scheduled to be in session. House Speaker Michael E. Busch was meeting with key lawmakers, and some wavering delegates also received calls from O'Malley.

As the governor walked through the State House late Tuesday, he quipped: "I'm getting buttons printed up that say 'I'm so sick of this issue.'"

Clerks piled stacks of amendments on Busch's desk; nearly two dozen were offered.

One that won House approval would prevent the ATMs at casinos from accepting state-issued welfare cards. Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke offered it, saying that a similar measure was adopted in California after the state government realized tens of millions in welfare money was lost at casinos.

Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg opposed the change, saying it would add a "hardship" and a "burden" on welfare recipients that would set them apart from regular Marylanders.

Another delegate — Luiz Simmons from Montgomery County — tried and failed to strengthen a prohibition on campaign donations from casino owners and their employees. "Do we feel the threat imposed from organized gambling is serious?" he asked.

As the debate dragged on in the House, some lawmakers passed around a piece of paper to wager on when the chamber would vote and adjourn for the night.

Key provisions of bill

•Allows a sixth casino in Maryland, to be in Prince George's County

•Permits table games with live dealers at all state casinos

•Cuts tax rates on slots at all current casinos except Rocky Gap

•Bars any person or company that owns more than 5 percent of a casino from making political contributions

•Sends the measure to voters for approval or defeat in November