Special session on expanded gambling likely, Busch says

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Wednesday that within a couple of days Gov. Martin O'Malley is likely to call a special session to deal with the issue of expanded gambling — even though there is no guarantee the votes will be there to pass a bill.

After an afternoon meeting with his Democratic leadership team, Busch said he is putting House of Delegates members on notice that they should expect a call to come back to Annapolis soon. The speaker did not specify a date, saying it will be up to O'Malley to make the announcement.

Raquel Guillory, communications director for O'Malley, said the governor's office would not confirm that report late Wednesday. The governor has said in recent weeks that he hoped to call a special session if it appeared a deal was within reach on issues such as authorizing a casino in Prince George's County and permitting all of the state's slots license holders to offer table games.

"I believe the governor has made the determination to go forward," Busch said. "I'm assuming he believes the votes are there to pass legislation."

There has been widespread speculation in Annapolis that Aug. 8 is the target date for a special session. Busch said that if the General Assembly is to act, it needs to do so by Aug. 20 to put a measure on the November ballot.

Proponents say an expansion deal would generate additional money for Maryland schools, while protecting the revenue streams of casinos that are operating or have been authorized. Critics include traditional gambling opponents and the chief executive of the new Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills, David Cordish, who contends a Prince George's casino would slash his market share and cut into state revenue.

Busch gave no assurances Wednesday that the House can muster the 71 votes needed to pass a bill. While the Senate passed gambling expansion legislation with a strong majority this year, the House has been more reluctant to add another casino.

For the special session called in May to deal with budget and taxation issues, an agreement was in place and votes were lined up before lawmakers were summoned back to Annapolis. But the session on gambling apparently will be announced before details of the legislation are settled.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, said, "It's ill-advised for the governor to call this special session and he's setting himself up for a stinging rebuke. I think the governor is playing with fire and when you play with fire you're going to get burned."

Some Democrats were skeptical, too. Del. Curt Anderson. chairman of the Baltimore House delegation and a participant in Wednesday's leadership meeting, said O'Malley is making "a big gamble" that he can prevail in a special session.

Anderson said the support of city delegates — whose votes would be crucial to passing any gambling bill — is by no means assured. Baltimore's delegates will insist on support for city priorities, including a guaranteed flow of money each year to rebuild schools and an increase in city bonding authority, before agreeing to casino legislation, he said.

The city's demands would likely have to be incorporated into separate legislation, Anderson said. He acknowledged that other jurisdictions could demand to add their own "ornaments" to the Christmas tree, as they did on the last day of the regular 90-day session this year. That led to the collapse of the House version of a casino bill and the chaotic end to the session.

"I don't know how the governor would know the votes are there," Anderson said. "If the speaker of the House said the votes were there, that would mean something."

While Busch declined to forecast votes, he said the final bill likely would follow an outline that was crafted by a work group, but fell short of a consensus in June. After a month of deliberations and hearings, the group split between the Senate and administration members who wanted to move forward, and House members who weren't convinced.

Busch said he believed the House and Senate could coalesce around what he described as the 98 percent of a deal that the work group agreed upon to expand gambling.

"The vast majority of people want table games," he said. The Senate, led by President Thomas V. Mike Miller, has insisted that a Prince George's casino be part of any deal to allow table games.

The speaker said any legislation would open the door to multiple contenders for the proposed casino site in Prince George's, including National Harbor, Rosecroft Raceway and perhaps other contenders. He noted that the legislature adopted the principle of competitive bidding for its existing five slots licenses when it passed slots legislation in 2007 and said that should be maintained.

Miller and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III have strongly backed a plan to locate a casino at National Harbor, and the bill the Senate passed would have left Rosecroft owner Penn National Gaming ineligible for a license in the county.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker, said the county executive "greatly appreciates Gov. O'Malley's efforts on this issue," but declined to comment further.

Busch said any final deal would protect the interests of Baltimore and other localities that either host casinos now or have authorization for licenses. He said a deal would also include protection for existing and license holders.

He also said he expected decisions about whether to change the 67 percent slots tax rate paid by casinos would be made by legislators rather than shifted to a gaming commission, as some had suggested.

Joe Weinberg, a spokesman for the Cordish Cos., said any gambling expansion now would harm Maryland Live, which opened in June and is the state's largest casino.

"We continue to feel strongly that it is not in the best interests of Maryland, nor is it fair, to consider changing the rules pertaining to gambling in Maryland prior to the five casinos authorized in Maryland's constitution being open and stabilized," Weinberg said. "No other state in the country has ever considered expanding its number of gaming licenses before its initial facilities were open and stable, for the obvious reason that one cannot assess the risk of cannibalization without actual performance data."

While Cordish has opposed a gambling expansion, the sole contender for the casino license authorized for Baltimore has supported an arrangement that would allow table games as part of legislation authorizing a Prince George's casino. Caesars Entertainment contends it could build a more luxurious and lucrative facility if it could offer such attractions as blackjack and roulette rather than remaining a slots-only casino.

Assembly Republicans have expressed opposition to calling a special session, arguing that any gambling expansion should be considered during the legislature's regular session next January. Del. Glen Glass of Harford County has urged a boycott by the 43-member House GOP caucus — a symbolic gesture because the House's 98 Democrats can muster a quorum on their own.

O'Donnell said his caucus is still discussing its options on a boycott and declined to say whether the GOP would be unanimous in opposing any gambling expansion bill this summer. But he called the prospect of taking up other legislation that some delegations may seek as part of a gambling deal "disgusting and something that federal investigators are going to want to look at."

Busch sidestepped the question of whether he was counting on any Republican votes to reach the 71 needed to pass a bill. The speaker expressed hope that all legislators would cast their votes on the merits of the bill rather than the politics.

"I hate to think there's any group out there that just wants to stand in the way of legislation that's going forward," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.