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O’Malley hits House leaders on gambling setback

Group sees snag on lower tax rates

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House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Thursday that House members plan to discuss a compromise, but he thinks they have made enough concessions and will likely stand firm on the tax issue. ‘Does that mean the dialogue ends? No,” said Mr. Busch. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley blasted House leaders Thursday for balking at a proposal to expand gambling, as lawmakers said they will keep working toward a possible compromise and special session this summer.

The group — which included three senators, three delegates and five administration officials — was expected to recommend legislation to allow table games and a Prince George’s County casino. Members agreed to table games, a new casino and several gambling reforms, but ultimately split over the House members’ refusal to lower tax rates for casino operators.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, accused the lawmakers late Thursday of buckling to complaints from Anne Arundel County casino operators who worry the sixth site will hurt their business.

“For some reason, the House leadership at the last minute decided they did not want to share in that consensus,” he said. “Finding common ground will be difficult if House leadership has become invested in the notion that the Anne Arundel site should enjoy a virtual monopoly for as long as possible.”

Gambling supporters clung to hope the day after Wednesday’s meeting of the work group.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, told reporters Thursday that House members plan to discuss a compromise, but he thinks they have made enough concessions and will likely stand firm on the tax issue.

“Does that mean the dialogue ends? No,” said Mr. Busch, who chose the panel’s House members but did not serve on the work group. “Everybody worked pretty hard, and you have a consensus around 98 percent of the issues.”

The work group’s failure to reach an agreement surprised many observers who expected the panel to be a virtual rubber stamp for gambling legislation allowing a November referendum on the issue.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III have pushed for expanded gambling as a way to boost county and state revenues without raising taxes.

“This was about creating jobs and opportunity for our citizens in a time when good jobs are hard to find,” Mr. Baker, a Democrat, said late Wednesday. “I strongly encourage the governor, Senate president and the speaker to step in and ask the work group to hammer out an agreement.”

Mr. O’Malley still has the authority to call a special session, but would likely want a deal in place between both legislative chambers beforehand .

It appears that will only happen if Senate members agree to continue taxing the state’s casinos at the current rate of 67 percent.

Senate members argue that a lower rate is needed to cushion owners from lost business due to an extra site, and that the state would still generate substantial extra revenue even if it lowers its tax rate.

Mr. Busch insisted the existing tax rate would still be a good deal for casinos, pointing out that potential developers for a planned Baltimore casino said they would accept the conditions and that all facilities would benefit from the addition of table games.

“I’m ready to negotiate, and I’m hopeful that we can discuss this,” said Delegate Frank S. Turner, Howard Democrat who served on the work group. “We’re just at an impasse on one item.”

While gambling supporters were disappointed with the work group’s lack of consensus, opponents and Republicans complained of a lack of communication leading up to the final decision.

A loophole in the state’s Open Meetings Act allowed the group to meet throughout the week behind closed doors. Their final public meeting was delayed by nearly three hours Thursday as they met in private in hopes of working out a deal.

According to state law, the group was excluded from open meeting requirements because the governor appointed members informally rather than through an executive order, and because fewer than two of its members — only Chairman John Morton III — were private citizens.

State officials have defended the policy, arguing that the group was only discussing possible legislation rather than finalizing actual government policy.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, has been the work group’s most vocal critic and said he plans to propose a bill that would close the loophole.

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About the Author
David Hill

David Hill joined The Washington Times in February 2011 as a Maryland political reporter. He can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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