- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2012

Maryland legislators will be cutting their summer vacations short after Gov. Martin O'Malley announced a special session for Aug. 9 to address gambling questions left unanswered in the spring.

But after Mr. O'Malley repeatedly urged state leaders to “put the issues behind us so we can move forward,” some people are wondering whether the decision was a risky bluff.

It’s the second special session this summer — Mr. O'Malley called the first one in mid-May to wrap up the budget — and the issues of table game expansion at Maryland’s existing casinos and adding a sixth casino in Prince George’s County were largely used as the reasons why the General Assembly adjourned without passing a budget during the regular session.

“I think we had an emergency situation when we adjourned sine die without a budget,” Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, said at a Friday news conference announcing next month’s special session. Flanked by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat,and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, as well as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, and Mr. O'Malley, touted job creation and revenue as reasons why the gambling issues require immediate action.

The timing and justification, however, created some skepticism.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, issued a statement Friday afternoon criticizing the governor’s reasoning for the session.

“The real crisis in Maryland is not whether there should be a sixth casino location, but rather the trend of recent job losses,” Mr. Pipkin said. “The state is bleeding jobs at a rate of tens of thousands on a monthly basis, and the best the Governor O'Malley can muster is, ‘If you give me another casino, I can get you 3,000 jobs in a few years.’”

Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, questioned whether the emergency was a legitimate one or “a political emergency.”

“I think it would be very hard to argue that a special session to decide an issue of putting a casino in National Harbor really rises to the level for calling a special session,” Mr. Eberly said “Luckily, ‘emergency’ has no real firm definition in politics. Never mind that it [expanding gambling] has to go before voters and voters may actually reject it.”

The Maryland Secretary of State certifies ballot language on the third Monday in August so any item that will be considered by voters this year must be approved by Aug. 20.

According to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maryland is one of 34 states where the governor or legislature can call a special session. So far this year, Maryland is one of 11 states to call a special session. Last year, more than a dozen states, including Maryland, did so. Arizona alone had four.

The reasons for special sessions can range anywhere from budgetary issues, to economic development, health care, redistricting, coastal management and prison relocation. Maryland’s special session last year was to pass the new congressional redistricting map in time for November’s House of Representatives elections.

In a statement from House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican, and Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Eastern Shore Republican, the two leaders called the decision a “get-it-done-quick- special session” and warned that not enough time would be given for public comment.

Mr. Miller said he expects the session to go about two or three days.

“This is a full time job, we’re paid a decent salary, the people who elect us have a right to expect us to be here in spite of family vacations or any other previous plans,” Mr. Miller said.

Though Friday’s announcement only mentioned the gambling issues, other items can be added to any legislative agenda. Mr. Miller said he hoped the issue of pit bulls being labeled as “inherently dangerous” by a Court of Appeals opinion would be brought forward.

A task force established earlier this year to study the effects of the ruling and propose legislation to mitigate its impact was meeting regularly at the beginning of the summer. When it seemed like the chances of a special session had shrunk to nothing, task force co-chairman Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, said the group would not meet again formally until October.

Mr. Miller met with Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Busch last week for a closed-door breakfast at the governor’s residence, one of two back-to-back confidential meetings between the governor and state and local leaders, that had many wondering whether the odds of a special session had turned in the governor’s favor.

Mr. Busch skirted a direct answer as to whether he thought there were enough votes in the House, saying members would “work on all the specifics of the legislation before the special session. We’re very diligent about all the details. We want the whole thing to go forward in a way that everyone benefits.”

Mr. Eberly suggested that Mr. O'Malley is “taking a bit of a gamble” if he is unsure about House support, but the governor’s early interest in a second special session painted him into a corner that might require negotiation, such as leveraging votes out of a pit bull bill.

“Holding a special session on gambling and pit bulls. This is not what was envisioned when the provision allowing for a special session was created,” Mr. Eberly said. “It’s the ‘pit bulls versus the pit bosses’ session.”