- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2012

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic leaders in Maryland’s General Assembly appear to be in agreement that the Democratic governor should call a special session to pass tax and revenue increases.

But they appear to disagree over whether a special session should include discussion of a failed gambling bill, which would have let voters decide this fall whether to bring a casino to Prince George’s County and legalize table games at the state’s slots locations.

Observers say the result is an apparent showdown between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., an ardent supporter of expanded gambling, and Mr. O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both of whom are highly skeptical of the proposal.

“I did not connect the issue to the budget and will not do so in a special session but I will state that I remain frustrated,” Mr. Miller wrote Friday in a letter to Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Busch. “I continue to believe that it is wrong to deny the voters the opportunity to have a say in whether we expand gaming … “

Mr. O'Malley, Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the possibility of a special session. The House speaker and Senate president have traded barbs since the session ended, with Mr. Busch repeating his claim that Senate leaders engineered the assembly’s late meltdown by intentionally stalling on budget negotiations in an effort to pressure the House into passing the gambling bill.

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, responded last week in a letter to senators, refuting the charge and accusing House leaders of being inflexible on the budget and acting in a manner “beneath the dignity of the General Assembly.”

He insists the assembly’s meltdown wasn’t about gambling but still contends the issue must be decided this year, as failure to pass a bill would push any potential referendum back two years to 2014.

The Senate appears clearly to be behind the bill, but the House has deep concerns that a new casino would drive business and developer interest from other sites in the state and that proponents are trying to move onto table games without giving the state’s slots industry a fair chance to develop.

The state has opened two casinos on the Eastern Shore but a planned Anne Arundel County site has yet to open and sites in Baltimore and Western Maryland have yet to choose developers.

During the regular session, the House Ways and Means Committee passed a heavily amended version of a Senate-approved gambling bill. The measure died without a vote in the House but was likely short of the 85 supporters needed for passage.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, and other House leaders say they do not want to revisit the proposal until next year.

That sentiment was echoed last week by Delegate Frank S. Turner, Howard Democrat and chairman of the Ways and Means gambling subcommittee, who has argued table games and a new casino could oversaturate the state’s gambling market.

House lawmakers say the issue is too weighty to take up during a special session, which legislators have said they hope will be as short as a couple of days.

“The general public doesn’t expect us to be here for a long time,” Mr. Busch said last week. “They expect us to do our work and get out. We’ve already disappointed them during the 90-day period of time.”

Mr. O'Malley could help to mediate the dispute between the chambers and he has come down squarely on the side of the House, contending that a special session should focus on passing revenue increases to undo $512 million in cuts that passed this month as part of a default budget.

“I believe the gambling issue and budget issues can be separated,” the governor tweeted last week, later adding that he was “hopeful that the presiding officers will come together to focus on the priorities of the people of our state.”

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