Maryland House lawmakers set to work on gambling

Voters would decide casino question

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers appear ready to make drastic changes to a gambling expansion bill that the Senate passed last week, but Democratic House leaders still don’t know whether they will have enough votes. The HouseWays and Means Committee is expected to amend and vote Monday on a proposal to start the process of allowing table games in Maryland and a new casino in Prince George’s County. If the legislation passes both chambers, it would have to be approved by voters in a November referendum.

While the Senate passed the bill by a relatively easy 28-14 vote last week, the House of Delegates is where the battles will be fought. Even the bill’s supporters are calling for tweaks to better compensate casino operators, local governments and causes such as education.

While officials hope to wrap up the special session by Tuesday night, lawmakers say they will first have to get through lengthy negotiations in the House and then between the two chambers — if the bill gets that far.

“It’s just going to depend on what the bill shapes up to be,” said House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and Ways and Means member. “There are still some things that have the committee somewhat uncomfortable and until some of those are changed, I think it’s 50-50.”

The House and Senate have failed to see eye to eye on casino legislation since this past spring’s regular session, when a Senate-backed bill died in the House because of concerns that a sixth casino would crowd the market and take business from the state’s other facilities — particularly the Maryland Live casino in Anne Arundel County and a planned casino in Baltimore.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, proposed legislation last week that would lower the current tax rates at the Anne Arundel and Baltimore casinos from 67 percent to 62 percent, and lower the rate for the existing Ocean Downs casino to 57 percent to cushion the blow from added competition.

Anne Arundel’s House members are still dead set against any expansion, said county delegation chairman Delegate Ronald A. George, Anne Arundel Republican.

He said that along with the increased competition from a Prince George’s facility, lawmakers have concerns about the percentages of revenue that go to counties. A planned gaming commission in the bill could have too much power, he said.

The commission would be appointed by the governor and could alter tax rates for the Anne Arundel and Baltimore facilities, although the General Assembly would have the power to override any changes.

Mr. George, who serves on Ways and Means, said the committee will approve its own version of the bill, but key stakeholders in the House will have the final say.

“It’s going to fall down to how many in Prince George’s and how many in Baltimore vote against the bill,” he said.

Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of his city’s House delegation, said city lawmakers are currently undecided on the bill but will support it if legislators allot a larger portion of the city’s casino revenue to school construction.

The Senate amended the bill last week to require that 5 percent of table games revenue from the Baltimore casino goes to city schools, which Mr. Anderson said is a good start.

“Our schools are in horrible shape. We haven’t had a school built in 20 years,” he said. “Under the right circumstances, the majority of the delegation would vote for it. I’m just waiting to see if those circumstances are met.”

While Anne Arundel and Baltimore lawmakers appear to be acting in relative unison, there is some discord among Prince George’s House members as some have stood firm against the proposal despite urging of support from County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.

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