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Senate gives preliminary OK to gambling bill

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate on Friday gave preliminary approval to allowing table games like blackjack and a new casino near the nation's capital.

A vote on the measure was set for the evening on the second day of a special session.

Senators spent much of the afternoon rejecting amendments, including one that would have lifted a provision in the bill to ban political contributions from casino owners.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, included the ban in the measure he submitted to the Legislature. The governor wanted it to apply to contributions from casino owners and certain employees of gambling companies, but a Senate committee loosened the provision to apply only to include people with 5 percent ownership in a casino.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, wanted to remove the ban. He questioned why other groups with large financial interests before lawmakers should be able to donate money while casino owners couldn't. He also noted that the Democratic Governors Association, a national group headed by O'Malley, has accepted large contributions from gambling interests.

"I think it's an imposition of the executive branch as far as the campaign issues are concerned, and again it gets into a question of one dollar versus another dollar, a question of who this restricts and doesn't restrict," Pipkin said.

But Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, said the ban was needed.

"I think our constituents are concerned about the undue influence that this industry might have for us," Madaleno said.

The gambling measure would allow a casino in Prince George's County. A key part of the bill also cuts the tax rate to varying degrees at casinos that are currently allowed. Maryland's 67 percent tax rate on casino proceeds is unusually high.

The Senate did approve two amendments.

Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, pushed for a change that would allow Evitts Resort LLC, which is putting a casino at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Resort in western Maryland, to keep an extra half-percent of revenue generated by its casino to pay for infrastructure to accommodate its machines. The company told regulators last month it could not find financing to add on to the lodge to hold 500 slot machines. Instead, the company is putting the machines in meeting space in the lodge. The company has three years to create new meeting space at the lodge.

Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Harford, will allow the Rocky Gap casino and a casino near Ocean City to buy or lease their own machines. The measure initially allowed the state's larger casinos to keep 6 percent more revenue, if they relieve the state of the expensive responsibilities of owning the machines.

In other business, the Senate was scheduled to vote on legislation addressing a controversial ruling by the state's highest court that determined pit bulls to be "inherently dangerous" animals. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in April created a breed-specific, strict liability standard for owners of pit bulls or pit bull breeds. The ruling means a pit bull owner could be liable for a dog bite without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous.

The measure creates a strict liability standard for all dogs. The bill also reverses a part of the ruling that made landlords strictly liable for pit bull bites.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates convened Friday morning for the first time during the special session. The House Ways and Means Committee met to consider the governor's gambling proposal. The House Judiciary Committee also met to consider pit bull legislation.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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