- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — A new state commission charged with crafting a bill to expand gambling in Maryland will have to overcome a short time frame and skepticism from House lawmakers.

The 11-member Work Group to Consider Gaming Expansion will have until late June to study the possible impact of expanding the state’s slots program to include table games and a sixth casino in Prince George’s County.

If the group sees fit, it will then recommend legislation to be debated by the General Assembly during a special session the week of July 9. Voters would decide any approved legislation’s fate in a November referendum.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who helped select the work group, said he expects members to look at making sure a sixth site doesn’t hurt planned casinos in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore and that revenues are fairly distributed between governments and casino operators.

“There are a lot of questions that people need to ask before you go into a consensus,” Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said Tuesday.

The work group includes three senators, three delegates, five gubernatorial appointees and six lawmakers serving as alternates.

Two of the alternates are Republicans and all other lawmakers are Democrats.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Morton III is chairman of the group; its other four gubernatorial appointments are all Cabinet members or advisers to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

GOP lawmakers accused Democratic leaders Tuesday of assembling a panel to rubber-stamp a casino proposal rather than provide objective analysis.

“Clearly this deal was cut when they agreed to two special sessions,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican. “We can already predict what the outcome will be, and it’s a very cynical game that this governor is playing.”

The work group will look to improve upon a failed gambling bill from this year’s regular session, which died in the House largely because of objections by Anne Arundel County and Baltimore lawmakers.

The bill easily passed the Senate and is being pushed by supporters who say inaction this year would push a referendum from 2012 to no earlier than 2014, costing stakeholders two years worth of revenue.

State analysts estimated this year that a Prince George’s casino could generate more than $450 million in annual slots revenue starting in 2016, a total of $87 million of which would be poached from Anne Arundel and Baltimore.

With table games factored in, it was estimated that a Prince George’s site would bring the county $20 million in local revenue while causing Anne Arundel and Baltimore to each lose about $2.5 million from their previously expected take.

Some lawmakers worried the estimates downplayed gambling’s negative effects, so the state is commissioning a study from PricewaterhouseCoopers that will weigh heavily in the work group’s recommendation.

If the panel pursues expanded gambling, it will likely recommend new revenue distributions.

Currently, about half of slots revenue goes to state education, with 33 percent going to casino operators and 5.5 percent going to host counties. The remainder goes to other state causes.

Lawmakers will likely give operators a larger share of revenue to ease their concerns about losing business, but could face criticism from opponents wanting to maintain current investments in education.

The state must also decide what to do with table games revenue because lawmakers bristled at a proposal this spring that would have given 90 percent of revenue to casino operators, 10 percent to host jurisdictions and none to the state.

“I don’t think there would be any circumstance where I could personally agree for the state not to get something from table games,” said work group member and Delegate Frank S. Turner, Howard Democrat. “The state has an interest. If they’re taking the risk and buying the equipment, they ought get something back from table games.”

The work group plans to hold its first meeting June 1, with meetings also scheduled for June 12 and June 20.

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