Md. General Assembly may hold two special sessions: One on taxes, the other on gambling

April 24, 2012

Maryland leaders are considering convening two special legislative sessions in the coming months: one on taxes, the other on the expansion of gambling.

That prospect emerged Tuesday during a closed-door meeting among Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the two Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, gathering over breakfast to discuss cleaning up the messy end to this year’s 90-day legislative session.

“I think that both issues deserve a hearing and some resolution,” O’Malley later told reporters. “What made this session very disappointing and frustrating by the end was considering both of those issues at the same time.”

Lawmakers failed to pass an agreed-upon tax bill before adjourning at midnight April 9 and left unresolved legislation calling for a statewide vote on a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County — most likely at National Harbor.

No deal was formalized Tuesday. But under a framework floated by O’Malley, lawmakers would return to Annapolis in mid-May to work on a revenue package and again this summer to take up gambling legislation, which could include the addition of table games at Maryland’s five existing slots sites.

“Everyone agreed the primary concern is the budget,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said after the meeting at the governor’s mansion. He suggested that lawmakers could largely pick up where they left off on a revenue bill, which included an income tax increase for those earning more than $100,000.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who strongly supports the gambling bill, declined to comment after the meeting.

In a letter to O’Malley and Busch late last week, he said he was “both willing and open” to work more on the budget.

If no action is taken on a revenue bill by July, more than $500 million in cuts to education and other planned spending will take effect — a scenario that Democratic leaders are seeking to avoid.

Among those proposing legislative action is William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who said in an opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun this week that student tuition would increase if the state budget stands as is.

Republicans continued to argue Tuesday that reopening work on the budget is not necessary because its overall size would increase even under what Democrats have dubbed the “doomsday” scenario.

“These guys are way too eager to raise taxes,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert), who also mocked Democratic leaders for considering two sessions to take up their remaining business.

“These guys just got done proving they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” O’Donnell said. “Now they’re going to show they can walk one day and chew gum the next?”

Pushing off the gaming debate by several months would allow House leaders to better gauge support for a Senate bill approved late in the session, legislative aides said. And it would also allow time to engage a consultant to better inform their decisions.

The Senate legislation sought to compensate existing casino owners for a new competitor in Prince George’s by increasing the share of slots proceeds they may keep.

House leaders have argued that they need a more objective look at the effect of a potential sixth site on other casinos, particularly those planned in neighboring Anne Arundel County and Baltimore.

Miller and Busch have squabbled in recent weeks over the role the gaming bill played in the collapse of the revenue package on the session’s final night. Busch has argued that Senate leaders “slow-walked” budget negotiations to gain leverage on gambling.

Miller has denied that was the case but said he and Busch had a deal that a gambling bill would pass along with several bills needed to put a budget agreement in place — something Busch denies.

State elections officials indicated Tuesday that they probably could accommodate a statewide ballot measure on gambling in November if lawmakers wrap up work by mid-August.

An agreement to consider the subject in a second special session would hardly guarantee the outcome.

The developer of Maryland Live! Casino, which is scheduled to open in June in Anne Arundel, has argued against allowing another competitor in the Maryland market.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) remains a strong proponent of a “high-end” casino at National Harbor, the mixed-use development on the banks of the Potomac River.

In a letter to O’Malley and legislative leaders on Monday, Baker argued that “a sixth gaming site in Prince George’s County will bring more revenues to the state of Maryland than the current five sites, and more revenues are what we all want and need.”

Not all lawmakers or constituents of Prince George’s are convinced, however.

When the General Assembly crafted Maryland’s slots program in 2007, a majority of Prince George’s delegates opposed hosting a gaming site, arguing that slots would prey on the poor and breed more social ills.

In a letter Tuesday to O’Malley, a group of religious leaders known as Family Faith Future said a casino remains “unwelcome and would be contrary to the wishes and beliefs of the vast majority of Prince George’s County citizens, businesses, religious institutions, elected officials and particularly voters.”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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