Md. speaker suggests House will alter casino bill

August 11, 2012

The Maryland House of Delegates will seek to make the governor’s gambling bill fair to casinos and counties that would lose money if a venue opens in Prince George’s County, Speaker Michael E. Busch said Saturday.

Busch’s comments came a day after the Senate approved Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan by a comfortable margin, sending it to the House, where the outcome is less certain.

The legislation allows a Las Vegas-style casino in Prince George’s and would permit table games, such as blackjack and roulette, at the five slots sites Maryland voters approved in 2008. Two of the sites have yet to open.

“We’re going for fairness, equity. We want to do it right,” Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said after leaving a meeting of a House panel considering the governor’s plan. “I think there are some tweaks and improvements you can make.”

Busch offered no specifics, but he pointed to a few provisions in the legislation to compensate the casinos and host counties that would be affected by the competition of another gambling venue, most likely at National Harbor or Rosecroft Raceway. Gambling revenue in Maryland is shared by casino operators, the state and the host counties.

An aide said Busch was not trying to accommodate any particular casino owner but seeking to “even out the impact to the marketplace.”

Cordish Cos., the owner of Maryland Live! casino in Anne Arundel County, has opposed the plan proposed by O’Malley (D), calling the bill, even with its concessions, “patently unfair.”

O’Malley’s bill would guarantee both Maryland Live!, which opened in June, and a planned casino in Baltimore an additional 5 percent share of slots revenue, up from 33 percent, with the possibility of another 5 percent in further relief. All casinos would benefit from provisions that allow table games and 24-hour operations.

Cordish, which operates the state’s largest casino, has sought the addition of a formula to the bill that the company says would more precisely compensate it for losses after the opening of a Prince George’s casino, expected by mid-2016.

Cordish executives and lobbyists were among more than two dozen gambling company representatives who sat in the audience Saturday as a House subcommittee considered the bill. Several lobbyists used the occasion to pull aside delegates and key staff members to press their point of view.

Legislative analysts predict that O’Malley’s bill, which is being considered during a special legislative session, would net the state about $200 million a year after a Prince George’s casino opened. About $130 million of that would come from provisions unrelated to the new site, including a plan to shift responsibility for buying slot machines from the state to casino owners.

About $70 million in net state revenue is attributed to the Prince George’s site, and that number would be reduced if compensation to other owners increases over what is currently in the bill.

O’Malley’s legislation also includes a provision to protect revenue flowing to host counties, but some local officials have argued that it is inadequate.

The governor huddled privately Saturday with delegates on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling issues.

After he emerged and was asked about the bill’s prospects in the House, O’Malley said: “I think we’re getting there. You never know until the final vote count.”

A similar gambling bill died in the House on the final night of this year’s regular session.

Some delegates predicted a tough road ahead when they reconvene Monday and start considering amendments to O’Malley’s bill. Among the challenges, they said, will be members’ efforts to trade votes for unrelated provisions to benefit their districts.

The Senate is scheduled to return Tuesday night, with the expectation that the House will have passed a bill by then.

“It’s starting to look more difficult than landing the Curiosity rover on Mars,” said one Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, who requested anonymity to more freely discuss the status of the legislation.

House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore), the chief vote counter in the chamber, said a survey of delegates has yet to be completed.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I think at the end of the day, we’ll be able to deliver a fair product,” Branch said.

An expanded gambling plan would also require approval by voters in November before taking effect.

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