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Gaming hike in Maryland gets initial go-ahead

O’Malley’s bill easily clears state Senate panel

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ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland state Senate committee gave bipartisan approval Thursday to Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill that would start the process to expand gambling in the state as the General Assembly opened its special session.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted 11-1 in favor of the bill, which would legalize table games at the state's slots casinos and allow a new casino in Prince George's County, pending approval from voters this fall.

Lawmakers gave their approval despite complaints from opponents that a sixth facility would take business from other casinos in the state, particularly the Maryland Live casino in Anne Arundel County. The full Senate is expected to debate and pass the legislation on Friday, setting up what will likely be a more contentious battle in the House next week.

"We're hoping to increase the number of jobs here in the state of Maryland, and we're hoping to increase money for education," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat. "I think we're going to get it done; but if we don't, it's not because we haven't tried."

Senate members appear ready to embrace the bill, which is similar to one they passed during this year's regular session that died in the House.

The committee approved the bill Thursday after a more than three-hour hearing with support from all three Republican members and from eight of nine Democrats. The lone opposition vote came from Sen. James E. DeGrange Jr., Anne Arundel Democrat, whose district includes Maryland Live.

Opposing testimony was led by Maryland Live casino representatives and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold.

"This additional site will be a boa constrictor that will squeeze the life out of Maryland Live," said Mr. Leopold, a Republican. "It promises short-term gratification at the expense of a future clouded with pitfalls."

The legislation would lower tax rates for casino operators in Anne Arundel and Worcester counties, as well as at a planned casino in Baltimore and the proposed site in Prince George's County.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore would get to keep 38 percent of slots revenues rather than the current 33 percent, while Worcester would be upped to 43 percent. The change is meant to compensate all three sites for potential lost business from a Prince George's facility.

The Prince George's casino would keep up to 38 percent of its slots revenues.

Cecil County's Hollywood Casino would stay at 33 percent and a facility in Allegany County would retain its existing deal to keep 50 percent of revenues for the first 10 years in order to help make the remote site viable.

The bill would also institute table games at all six facilities at a 20 percent tax rate.

The committee added several minor amendments, including one that will require that Baltimore commit the city's share of table games revenue to school construction.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican, said he thinks the bill will bring a net revenue gain to the state and that he was won over by language in the bill that would allow the Prince George's casino to be built at Rosecroft Raceway — a site that expressed interest in a facility but has taken a back seat to front-runner National Harbor.

"I don't want a coronation. I want there to be a second opportunity, and I think they've done that," he said. "If it was just to create a monopoly, I don't think the state would be better served by that."

While some Senate Republicans are ready to back the legislation, the party's leadership in the chamber presented a 10-bill alternate package to freeze tax rates and lower corporate taxes to help spur job growth.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has said gambling expansion could create thousands of jobs, but Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin said the better approach would be making the state more business-friendly.

"Instead of worrying about casinos and locations and splits, we need to look Maryland citizens in the eye," said Mr. Pipkin, Cecil Republican.

Critics have accused gambling proponents of trying to push the casino bill through a special session rather than allowing full discussion next year as a way to appease wealthy developers.

Joseph C. Bryce, the governor's chief legislative officer, disputed allegations that lawmakers want to unfairly cut taxes for casino operators shortly after raising taxes on many residents.

"No one should come away with the notion that somehow this is for corporate interests," he said. "The state is going to introduce a competitor and take business from that facility. It is fair to reasonably compensate for that loss."

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