- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — The General Assembly passed legislation Tuesday night to expand gambling in the state, setting up a November referendum that will determine the proposal’s ultimate fate.

After six hours of passionate debate, the House voted 71-58 in favor of the bill, which would allow table games at the state’s slots casinos and at a sixth gambling facility to be built in Prince George’s County if voted into law.

The Senate approved the House amendments to the bill shortly after midnight, finalizing the legislation and wrapping up a four-day special session. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill Wednesday morning.

It appeared uncertain early Tuesday whether House supporters would have enough votes in the 141-member chamber, but lawmakers adopted several amendments that appeared to lock up last-minute support from legislators who had been on the fence. The bill passed with a razor-thin one-vote margin.

“We put together the best product that we thought we could have,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. “It’ll be on the ballot in November and the citizens of the state of Maryland will make the ultimate decision.”

Throughout much of the debate Tuesday evening, Democratic leaders appeared poised to block any major amendments in the chamber, dominated by Democrats. They did accept a few minor amendments from Republicans and two changes proposed by the Baltimore County House delegation in an apparent effort to gain support from its Democrats.

The delegation’s amendments would increase lottery retailer commissions from 5 percent to 6 percent, and would allow bingo pull-tab gambling machines at many veterans halls throughout the state.

House leaders have long resisted the veterans hall proposal, and Republicans accused them of changing their tune solely to gain votes in the House and on Election Day.

“The votes didn’t exist for the underlying issue, so this was offered,” said Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican. “It was offered to the veterans to use them for their vote.”

House Republicans have long accused Democrats of using questionable tactics to rush gambling through the General Assembly, but Delegate Michael A. McDermott said Tuesday he would support gambling expansion because he thinks it would create jobs and generate funds for infrastructure.

“This bill will create thousands of construction jobs at a time when we are losing jobs by the thousands,” said Mr. McDermott, Worcester Republican.

The House passed its version of the bill and then adjourned from special session, giving the Senate no choice but to accept the amendments or let the bill die.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he was more than happy with the final product.

“We’re going to create jobs and create revenue” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat. “It’s a win-win for the counties involved and it’s a win-win for the state.”

If approved by voters, the legislation would lower tax rates on Anne Arundel County’s Maryland Live casino, Worcester County’s Casino at Ocean Downs and at planned sites in Baltimore and Prince George’s in an effort to protect them all from increased competition brought on by the Prince George’s facility.

Legislative analysts estimate that the bill would generate an extra $52 million for casino operators and the government in its first year.

The Senate took no action on a bill Tuesday night that would have changed the state law on dog bites, after the House and Senate passed drastically different versions of the bill.

Mr. Miller said the chambers were too far apart on the bill, which would make virtually all dog owners liable for attacks, regardless of whether their dogs have violent histories.

The bill was meant to counteract Court of Appeals decision in April that holds pit bull owners and their landlords to that standard, but holds owners of other breeds liable only if the dog had a previous violent incident.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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