O'Malley meetings could yield special-session decision

Gov.Martin O'Malleyis planning two days of meetings with key state leaders early next week that could determine whether he decides to call a special session on gambling expansion this summer.

The governor is planning to meet Monday with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Prince George's CountyExecutive Rushern Baker and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett to test how far they are willing to go in helping to pass a plan to add a new casino in Prince George's.

The next morning O'Malley is scheduled to what could be a do-or-die meeting with House Speaker Michael E. Buschand Senate President Thomas V. Mike Millerthat could decide whether the three move forward with a plan to call lawmakers back to Annapolis by mid-August to put a gambling referendum on the November ballot.

A work group set up by O'Malley failed to reach consensus last month on a plan that would have allowed a Prince George's casino -- most likely at National Harbor on the Potomac River -- in return for allowing table games at the state's five existing or planned slots-only casinos. O'Malley's appointees and Senate members of the panel came together around a comprehensive expansion plan -- which analysts then estimated could add roughly $223 million a year to state coffers -- but the three representatives of the House of Delegates were not persuaded.

Since then, O'Malley has been working with Busch to see whether agreement can be reached and enough votes can be rounded up in the House to pass a bill and justify a special session.

That, in part, is what Monday's meeting is about. Rawlings-Blake, Leggett and Baker are all on the record in support of a Prince George's casino, but their county House delegations are far from united on the issue. O'Malley intends to press to know how far they are willing to go in working to deliver the votes needed to meet the magic number of 71 in the House. That number will be especially hard to reach because the 43-member Republican caucus has said its members oppose holding a special session and can't be counted on to vote for anything brought up in one.

That means Busch would have to find 71 votes out of 98 Democrats, some of whom are either die-hard gambling opponents or skeptical about the expansion plan. Others may have vacation plans or business commitments that could keep them away, and an absence is in effect a no vote on final passage of any bill.

Administration officials are aware that they can't drag the process out much longer. If O'Malley, Miller and Busch don't come out of Tuesday morning's meeting with smiling faces and a report of significant progress, the chances of a special session drop to close to zero.

A failure to call a special session on gambling, which O'Malley announced in May that he intended to do, would represent a win for David Cordish, the lead owner of Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills and a vocal opponent of a Prince George's Casino. It would be a defeat for the developers of National Harbor, the prospective casino operator MGM and the Building Trades unions. All have been campaigning hard -- and expensively -- for passage of a gambling expansion plan this summer.


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