Lawmakers talking table games

The state's legislative leaders said Tuesday that the General Assembly could soon back an expansion of Maryland's gambling options to include games such as poker, blackjack and roulette.

While just two of the state's five planned slot machine parlors have opened — groundbreaking for a third, at Arundel Mills mall, is scheduled for Thursday — officials have long discussed the prospect of table games, which are legal in neighboring states.

Such an expansion would require the approval of Maryland voters. With the go-ahead from the legislature and Gov. Martin O'Malley, the question could be added to the 2012 ballot.

O'Malley has said that he would prefer to get the slot machine program approved by voters in 2008 up and running before making any changes.

But the operators of Hollywood Casino Perryville said recently that they need to offer blackjack and other table games to remain profitable. The state slots commission said that because West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania now offer table games, Maryland probably would not make the $600 million per year from slots gambling that was expected.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said in an interview that he thinks any gambling expansion would take place next year. Because the state's slots program was approved as an amendment to the Maryland Constitution, substantial changes — such as adding table games — would need voters' assent.

"There will be some sort of vetting of this issue over the summer," Busch predicted. "There will be discussions between the Senate leadership, the House leadership and the governor. ... I don't think it goes anywhere unless you have all three people" on board.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said there is a "strong possibility" that his chamber — which has taken a more favorable view of gambling than the House of Delegates — will consider the legislation this year.

Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a proposal this year to allow table games at existing slots parlors.

Miller acknowledged that the House holds the cards on table games.

"The history in the House is that they don't take up issues such as this until the year they'd be on the ballot," Miller said.

Marylanders will go to the polls in November 2012 for the presidential election.

Miller, a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's and Calvert counties, would like to see voters weigh in both on table games and on adding slots sites — namely, Rosecroft Raceway, a long-struggling harness track up for sale in Prince George's.

Last year, the state Senate approved legislation to allow a poker parlor at Rosecroft, but it stalled in the House of Delegates. Miller said he would prefer to see a slots facility there, but might try again for card games as "a fallback."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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