Gambling: An issue Gov. Martin O’Malley can’t escape

During Maryland’s 90-day legislative session, there were few battles that Gov. Martin O’Malley worked harder to avoid than an attempted gambling expansion.

Just a few weeks later, it has become a fight he says he can’t escape.

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However reluctantly, O’Malley (D) now finds himself struggling to broker a deal over whether to allow a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County and add Las Vegas-style table games at the state’s existing slots locations.

Brinkmanship over the issue contributed to last month’s collapse of the General Assembly session, and O’Malley said he has concluded that letting it fester any longer would get in the way of his priorities and stoke more distrust among legislative leaders.

“I saw it make a mess of the closing days of our legislature, and it threatens to do the same for the remaining two years that I have to serve the people of this state,” O’Malley, who is widely thought to harbor ambitions beyond Maryland, said in an interview last week. “My hope is to resolve this issue and put it behind us.”

His first step toward that goal was assembling an 11-member working group that will convene this week with the hope of crafting a consensus that eluded the legislature during a session in which it also failed to finish work on the state budget.

O’Malley declined to lay out his position but said that if the group can come up with a plan the General Assembly is likely to go along with, he’ll call a special legislative session in early July.

With a host of competing interests, reaching an accord is expected to be difficult — and some suggest that the governor is naive to think anything done this summer will make the gambling debate go away for good.

If there is a special session, “he becomes the central player,” said David Cordish, the developer of the state’s largest planned casino, which is scheduled to open next week in Anne Arundel County. “He will either go down as the champion of expanded gambling or he won’t.”

The work group is likely to start with discussion of a Senate plan that called for a statewide vote on allowing a Prince George’s casino, most likely at National Harbor, and table games, such as black jack and roulette, at the state's five previously authorized slots locations.

That plan is anathema to Cordish, who has argued that it’s patently unfair for the state to allow another casino that would cut significantly into his expected market of the District and Northern Virginia. Maryland leaders should not change the rules of the game before all five slots locations have a chance to succeed, he said.

“It sends a signal that Maryland is not a reliable partner,” Cordish said, adding that a better solution would be to add table games at the five existing locations and delay consideration of a sixth site.

Others have argued that there is a way to be fair to everyone — including bumping up the share of proceeds that existing casinos would be able to keep.

That leaves it to O’Malley to broker a deal, which is not an altogether-unfamiliar place for him.

In 2007, in his first year as governor, he sponsored legislation that launched Maryland’s slots program despite being on record as saying gambling proceeds were a “morally bankrupt” way to fund education.

At the time, O’Malley cast the measure as a compromise that would allow the legislature to move past an issue that had bitterly divided Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) for years.

“My preconception was that I would never have to deal with this issue again as long as I live,” O’Malley said. “I was wrong.”

There have been several significant changes since 2007.

Back then, most elected officials in Prince George’s County were solidly opposed to hosting a gaming site, citing addiction and other social ills that can accompany gambling.

Now, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who was elected in 2010, is continuing to lead the charge for a “high-level, billion-dollar” casino at National Harbor that could bring tens of millions in additional revenue to his county every year.

With O’Malley’s involvement, Baker said that he thinks the prospects for achieving his vision “are pretty good.”

Also since 2007, slots casinos in the surrounding states of Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have added table games, creating a disadvantage for Maryland sites in a competitive industry.

A Miller-backed bill that addressed both those issues rocketed through the Senate late in the 90-day session and then sputtered to its demise on the final day in the House.

Busch said O’Malley’s engagement in the issue is “important because obviously there were a lot of challenges without his involvement.”

But Busch also suggested that assembling the votes for legislation similar to the Senate bill could prove more difficult now.

“I think there’s a challenge in lowering the tax rate on casino owners after you just raised taxes on some Marylanders,” Busch said, referring to a decision to increase income taxes on six-figure earners in a special session called this month to finish work on the state budget.

Another hurdle emerged last week with an announcement by House Republicans that their members oppose a special session on gambling, an issue the minority party said needs to be considered in a “more deliberative and thoughtful fashion.”

O’Malley and others have argued that the issue needs to be resolved quickly so that needed approval from voters can be sought this fall. Otherwise, the earliest voters could have a say would be 2014.

Despite Baker’s strong support, not all members of the Prince George’s House delegation are convinced of the wisdom of allowing a gambling site in their county. And some minds aren’t likely to be changed regardless of what O’Malley’s work group recommends, said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D), the delegation chairwoman.

The state has hired a consultant to take a closer look at the impact a Prince George’s site would have on the other Maryland casinos. The consultant’s numbers are expected to guide any work-group recommendation on how to compensate other casino owners.

Cordish said he is sympathetic to O’Malley’s desire to put the issue behind him but said this won’t be the end of the gambling debate in Maryland.

“I guarantee you, if Prince George’s is extended the sixth, there will be a seventh and an eighth asking for a license,” he said. “That’s just the nature of this animal.”

 
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