Maryland lawmakers approve gambling expansion -- Gazette.Net


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Legislators may finally be done with a controversial plan to expand gambling in Maryland, but the battle for voter support is just beginning, the Senate president said this week.

The General Assembly gave final approval early Wednesday to a plan allow a major casino in Prince George’s County and Las Vegas-style table games at the state’s existing casinos.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach said the bill was a win for Maryland because it would raise revenues and create jobs.

But there could now be a fierce ad campaign between MGM Resorts International, which wants to build a casino at National Harbor, and Penn National Gaming, which owns Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and wants to put a casino there, Miller said.

“These ads you see about [Mitt] Romney and Barack Obama, they’re going to be dwarfed,” he said, joking that “it’s going to be hand-to-hand combat.”

Penn National, which also owns the Hollywood Casinos in Perryville and Charles Town, W.Va., opposed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal, arguing Perryville wasn’t receiving tax breaks comparable to other casinos and that the deck was stacked in favor of the National Harbor site.

Television and radio ads have been running for weeks; labor unions have touted the jobs a new casino would create, and critics have attacked MGM for its partnership with a Chinese businesswoman, Pansy Ho, who is alleged to have ties to organized crime in that country.

Both MGM and Caesars Entertainment, which will run the planned casino, released statements Wednesday praising the legislature’s decision.

Shortly before midnight Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted 71 to 58 — the minimum needed for passage — in favor of O’Malley’s bill, which also makes adjustments to the tax rate on gambling revenues to compensate casino operators for additional competition and costs. The Senate, which approved the bill this past week, signed off on several amendments from the House early Wednesday.

Maryland’s constitution requires the expansion of gambling to be approved by voters, but lawmakers intend that the Prince George’s casino will be built only if a majority of county voters support the measure at the polls in November, according to the bill.

An earlier proposal to expand gambling, which died in the House during this year’s regular session, would have required a constitutional amendment in order to give a local jurisdiction like Prince George’s similar veto power in a statewide referendum. A constitutional amendment would have needed a three-fifths majority in each chamber to pass the legislature; the bill passed this week required only a majority in each.

“I’m very, very pleased,” said County Executive Rushern Baker III (D), who has proposed putting a major destination resort and casino at the waterfront National Harbor complex in Oxon Hill. “This puts us on the way not only to creating jobs in Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland, but also revenue for both the state and the county.”

The most important aspect of the bill was that it left the final decision to county voters, Baker said.

As amended by the House, the bill is projected to net an additional $200 million per year to the state’s Education Trust Fund by 2019, according to a state fiscal analysis.

Despite earlier objections from delegates, the House amendments ultimately offered a bigger cut to the state’s 67 percent tax on slots revenue than the Senate-approved plan. Casinos in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore city, for example, will keep an additional 8 percent and 7 percent of their proceeds, respectively, to cover marketing and capital improvements once a Prince George’s casino opens.

Earlier this summer, House members of a state work group on expanding gambling balked at proposals to lower the tax rate. The group’s failure to reach an agreement delayed the special session nearly a month as O’Malley worked with lawmakers to develop a consensus plan.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby denounced the final version of the bill produce on the House floor Tuesday, which he said cut taxes on billionaire casino owners shortly after lawmakers had raised taxes on working Marylanders.

But Del. Michael McDermott (R-Dist. 38B) of Pocomoke City, one of five Republican delegates to support the bill, called the measure a “big win” for Maryland. Adjusting the tax rates so the casinos could reinvest in the state was “a baby-step towards capitalism and [economic] recovery that we need to take,” McDermott said.

Floor debate was expect to begin in the House at 2 p.m. Tuesday, but was delayed for more than two hours, even though many delegates had been present at their desks or waiting in the nearby lounge.

The extended delay fueled speculation that House leadership still was cutting deals to ensure the gambling bill had enough votes to pass.

When the House eventually convened, leadership accepted an amendment from Del. Joseph J. Minnick (D-Dist. 6) of Dundalk that will allow pull-tab gambling machines at some veterans’ organizations west of the Chesapeake Bay. Slots already are allowed at such organizations on the Eastern Shore.

A similar amendment was raised by Republican Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Dist. 4A) of Middletown in a House subcommittee Monday, but it was not accepted; O’Donnell suggested on the floor Tuesday afternoon that the measure only had been adopted to persuade delegates to support the broader bill.

Miller, who has been a driving force behind putting a casino in Prince George’s, did not appear with O’Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis Wednesday, citing a family commitment.

dleaderman@gazette.net