Maryland Senate considers legalizing card games

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Even before the first of 15,000 slot machines arrives in Maryland, state lawmakers are considering the legalization of some Las Vegas-style table games, including poker and black jack, at a financially ailing racetrack in Prince George's County.

Under a measure that could win Senate approval early next week, voters statewide would be asked in November to authorize card games at Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), the bill's sponsor and an avowed gambling opponent, described the measure Friday as a "desperation move" to keep the track afloat.

Muse said hundreds of jobs could be lost by summer at the storied track, where live harness racing was suspended two years ago and simulcasts of thoroughbred races were cut off in May because of a contract dispute.

On Friday, senators rejected a proposed amendment to Muse's bill that would have allowed betting on card games at up to five other locations, to be chosen by a state commission.

That was in part because a separate bill is pending that would authorize table games -- craps and roulette, as well as cards -- at the five slots locations approved by Maryland voters in 2008. But that bill, sponsored by Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), was dealt a setback later Friday when a Senate committee, following a chaotic debate, voted 8 to 7 to study the concept instead.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that at least the Rosecroft bill stands a good chance of passage in his chamber, where many members have been frustrated watching surrounding states embrace table games as Maryland struggles to get its slots program up and running.

The odds of passage in the House of Delegates are far longer. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has signaled that he wants the state's slots casinos to open before serious debate begins on table games -- a view shared by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), a spokesman said Friday.

"We ought to focus our efforts on that," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said.

This week, Busch said he would discuss the narrower Rosecroft legislation with Prince George's delegates before commenting further. The district that includes the track is represented by three Democratic delegates, two of whom -- Kris Valderrama and Veronica L. Turner -- have expressed support for Muse's bill. Del. Jay Walker said that he is committed to saving the track but that "this is a new concept, so I'd want to study it."

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) declined to handicap the chances of the Rosecroft bill passing but said the calendar is working against it. When lawmakers return to Annapolis on Monday, only three weeks will be left in the session.

"There's not a lot of appetite to do gaming bills this year," Barve said, "and we're running out of time."

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