- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2012

ANNAPOLIS | A special session to consider expanded gambling this summer appears all but dead.

A work group of lawmakers and administration officials announced Wednesday that they failed to reach a consensus on legislation to legalize table games and a casino in Prince George’s County — after House members of the panel stood firm in their objections to the new site and a proposed lowering of tax rates for casino operators.

The group, appointed last month, was widely expected to recommend a bill to be considered during a special session which Gov. Martin O'Malley appeared likely to call next month. Officials said they expect dialogue to continue in coming days in an effort to compromise, but that a reconvening of the legislature is in serious doubt.

“We worked as diligently and faithfully as we could,” said Delegate Dereck E. Davis, Prince George’s Democrat. “If there’s anything else further to occur, it’s going to have to occur with the leaders of the two chambers and the governor.”

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, still has the authority to call a special session, but was expected to do so only on the condition that the work group would recommend legislation.

The announcement that members had failed to reach an agreement came at the end of a day of closed-door meetings among work group members in an attempt to hash out a late consensus.

Members agreed on several parts of a potential gambling bill — including taxing table games at 20 percent of their earnings and establishing a gaming commission to make future decisions — but failed to reach a consensus on how much slots revenue casino operators should be allowed to keep.

State law currently allows operators at four of the state’s five gambling sites to keep 33 percent of slots revenue, with the rest going to the state. Most of the state’s portion goes to education, with smaller portions going to county aid, horse racing and other programs.

The panel — which included three senators, three delegates and five gubernatorial appointees — agreed to give operators 38 percent, provided that they take on the state’s present responsibility of buying and leasing slot machines.

The proposal would have generated an extra $223 million for state education, according to state analysts.

Senate members and the governor’s appointees pushed to give operators more than 38 percent of slots revenue to help them absorb the blow from lost business due to a sixth casino.

But House members balked at the proposal, insisting that it would be inappropriate to lower tax rates on wealthy casino operators during a year in which lawmakers have raised taxes on many residents.
As a result, the work group’s official recommendation was to not hold a special session until a future consensus is reached.

While House members said they were protecting taxpayers’ best interests, Senate members suggested that they failed to realize that expanded gambling would have ultimately brought more money for the state.

“I’m a little disappointed we couldn’t come to a broader consensus,” said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat. “I think we left a lot on the table.”

The work group came under fire in recent days from critics who have questioned their frequent closed-door meetings and portrayed the panel as trying to pass a tax break for casino owners.

”We just have to grow up and put this obsession with slot machines back on the toy shelf where it belongs and get focused on building our state’s private economy the right way,” Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, a Democrat, said Wednesday morning.

Mr. O'Malley said Wednesday afternoon that he thinks a deal can still be reached but isn’t sure when.
He hopes to meet with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, in coming days and possibly work out a bill in time for a special session this summer.

”This is a piece of the state’s financing, but our sun doesn’t rise or set based on this one sector,” the governor told reporters in Baltimore. “I’d just like to get it resolved because I don’t want it to push other important issues to the side.”

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