ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers and casino owners on Wednesday were reviewing Gov. Martin O'Malley's measure to expand gambling on the eve of a second special session this year.
It's an unusual event in Maryland that stems from a long-lingering hangover after the breakdown of a gambling bill and a budget agreement during the 90-day regular session. O'Malley, a Democrat, called a short special session in May to address the budget collapse.
O'Malley, speaking to reporters for the first time since the measure was made public Tuesday night, said the measure would enable the state to generate significantly more money, create jobs and make Maryland more competitive with neighboring states that have gambling.
Still, the governor isn't hiding his weariness with the gambling debate: "I'm so sick of this issue."
He dismissed talk about lawmakers holding out for benefits in their districts in exchange for their support. "This is not so much about what we want. It's about what we need to get behind us."
The ultimate aim of the session is to legalize table games like blackjack and allow a new casino site in Prince George's County near the nation's capital.
However, the 55-page bill contains a variety of changes both large and small to gambling in Maryland — from lowering the state's high 67 percent tax rate on gambling proceeds by varying degrees to loosening entertainment restrictions at a casino on the Eastern Shore.
The bill also would allow casinos to keep 6 percent more revenue if they buy or lease slot machines, lifting what has become an expensive burden to the state. Political contributions from gambling entities would be banned.
The owners of Maryland's largest casino have been vehemently against the new casino site in Prince George's, out of concern it will draw too much business away. Proposed adjustments to tax rates to help soften the blow to Anne Arundel and to a planned casino in Baltimore have not alleviated concerns at the Cordish Cos.
"As currently drafted, the proposed legislation is patently unfair to impacted operators and not in the best interest of the state, because it will undermine the health of the industry and negatively affect state tax revenues," Joseph Weinberg, managing partner for Cordish, said in a statement.
The gambling measure is expected to cruise through the Senate, where similar legislation passed during the regular session. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee planned to hold a hearing on the bill Thursday afternoon.
Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, the committee chairman, said allowing table games probably should have been taken up in 2007, when O'Malley called a special session to authorize slot machine gambling in a constitutional amendment and raise a variety of taxes to address a budget deficit. However, the votes weren't there at the time for table games.
"I think the bottom line is we're getting to where we should have been years ago," Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore County, said.
The committee could vote the measure to the full Senate later Thursday, and the Senate could pass the bill to the House of Delegates by Friday.
The House of Delegates has traditionally been the greater hurdle to gambling.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said in a statement Tuesday night that the House would continue to work on the bill in order to create the best possible product for voters to consider in November.
Delegate Frank Turner, who was a member of a work group that studied gambling expansion this summer, said he has some reservations about the bill. He noted a provision that would allow the Cordish Cos. casino and a planned Caesars Entertainment casino in Baltimore to keep 5 percent more revenue — if the money is spent on marketing, advertising, promotional costs or capital improvements — to help offset extra competition from Prince George's. Turner said some may see that simply as a tax break.
"It's a bill that probably needs a little bit more work on it," Turner, D-Howard, said.
The House is scheduled to convene on Friday, and the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Friday afternoon.
Besides the gambling measure, lawmakers also are expected to consider a bill to address a ruling by Maryland's highest court that defines pit bulls as "inherently dangerous." The bill is expected to focus on removing landlord and third-party liability for dog bites. Instead, the measure will seek to put liability for bites by any type of dog on their owners.