Gov. Martin O’Malley argued Wednesday that his gambling expansion plan would create jobs and more revenue for Maryland — but said he mainly wants it passed because he is “so sick of this.”
“This is not so much about what we want as what we need to get behind us,” O’Malley (D) told reporters. “I don’t know a single member of the General Assembly who ran for office wanting to deal with the issue of gaming year in and year out. For crying out loud, aren’t we all tired of this by now?”
O’Malley’s comments came on the eve of a special legislative session he has called to consider a new casino in Prince George’s County, as well as Las Vegas-style table games, such as blackjack and roulette, at Maryland’s five designated slots locations. Voters also would have to sign off on the expansion in November.
O’Malley said he hopes this is the last time he has to deal with the issue in the remaining two years of his term.
His legislation, which his office released Tuesday night, prompted a wide reaction Wednesday from gambling companies, among others.
The Cordish Cos., the owner of Maryland’s largest casino, called the plan “patently unfair,” while another gambling company operating in Maryland, Penn National Gaming, said it is concerned over the governor’s plan.
Meanwhile, National Harbor, a leading prospective casino site in Prince George’s, and MGM Resorts, the company lined up to operate the venue, said in a statement that they were grateful for O’Malley’s efforts and would continue to work with him and lawmakers “to maximize the economic opportunity” for the county and the state.
Both companies are expected to be part of a parade of witnesses at a Senate hearing Thursday shortly after the special session opens. The real battle looms in the House of Delegates, where a similar bill died on the final night of this year’s regular legislative session — with O’Malley largely staying out of the fray.
O’Malley aides forecast that the governor’s proposal would net more than $200 million a year for the state after a Prince George’s facility opens in mid-2016.
Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George’s), the No. 2 vote counter in the House, said that he considers the new bill fair and that the dynamic seems to have changed in his chamber in recent weeks, as O’Malley has pushed to revisit the issue and consulted heavily with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
“The bill is a better product than the last time we took this up,” Ross said.
O’Malley’s legislation includes several provisions intended to compensate Cordish and Caesars Entertainment, the operator of a planned casino in Baltimore, for the competition that would come from Prince George’s.
Both casinos would get to keep an additional 5 percent of slots revenue, up from 33 percent now. Both would have a chance to appeal to the state for greater relief. And all Maryland slots operators would be allowed to keep 80 percent of the revenue from table games.
In a statement Wednesday, Caesars Chairman Gary W. Loveman credited O’Malley and Busch with crafting “a fair and well-thought-out bill” that his company can support.
But Joe Weinberg, Cordish’s managing partner, made it clear that he thinks the bill’s provisions fall well short of what is needed to protect Maryland Live!, the company’s venue in Anne Arundel County that opened in June. Weinberg said the company invested more than $500 million in the casino, which is drawing heavily from the Washington region.
“We have played by the rules created by the state and never asked for any concession or break,” he said. “We delivered a world-class facility that is already generating tens of millions of dollars of taxes for the state monthly, as promised.”
A spokeswoman for Penn National Gaming, which has one casino in Maryland and is interested in another in Prince George’s, said the company also has concerns about the legislation.
The bill would invite bids for the new casino from a swath of Prince George’s that includes National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway, which Penn owns.
Penn spokeswoman Karen Bailey said the company remains concerned about whether there will be “a level and fair playing field,” given that Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has openly championed a National Harbor site.
Bailey said Penn is also concerned that the Maryland casino it owns, Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County, would be the only facility not to receive targeted tax relief.
Gambling has been a festering issue in Annapolis for about a decade. In 2007, O’Malley brokered a legislative compromise that launched Maryland’s slots program, authorizing five locations around the state.
O’Malley said Wednesday that it was probably a mistake not to have legalized table games at the time. Since then, casinos in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have all added table games.
The governor also defended provisions in the bill that provide additional revenue to casino owners to compensate them for the Prince George’s competition.
“This is all about trying to maximize the bottom line for Maryland taxpayers,” O’Malley said.