Analysis: Lots of good reasons not to hold a special session on gambling

Video lottery terminals at Maryland Live! casino

Video lottery terminals at Maryland Live! casino

By Len Lazarick

Gov. Martin O’Malley seems hell bent on having a special session of the legislature next month to expand gambling, perhaps the week of Aug. 6, but there appear to be lots of good reasons not to bring the General Assembly back to Annapolis. Here are some of them.

I’ll be on my only weeklong vacation of the year, and don’t want to have to fly back from the beaches of Rhode Island. I am not alone. This is the peak of the vacation season. I will be annoyed as will my long-suffering wife, and so will many a legislator and their families. Unhappy legislators are not prone to give the governor his way.

What’s the rush?

There is a lot of pressure to put an expansion of gaming on the ballot this fall, but the urgency doesn’t make a lot of sense. The governor’s work group, which didn’t reach consensus last month on a reduction in tax rates for casino operators, agreed that any new Prince George’s casino wouldn’t open for four years. This means that thousands of construction jobs being touted wouldn’t likely appear for two years, and the new revenue from a casino wouldn’t show up for at least four.

None of the estimated revenues for slots that will go for school aid has arrived on time. Since the largest casino, Maryland Live!, opened just last month, there’s no telling this no money will meet projections. Earlier estimates of revenues have not. Maryland Live! had a great opening month, but it’s not clear what its revenues will look like at the end of the year.

Since this discussion started — back in February — the House of the Delegates has felt bullied by Senate President Mike Miller to pass this measure. The House resistance on the issue caused the regular session to end without completing work on the budget, forcing a special session in May. Now O’Malley has piled on, criticizing the leadership of the House last month for not going along with a compromise.

Still not enough votes in the House

The governor still doesn’t have the votes in the House. Gambling has always been a tough vote in the House of Delegates, which is why it was sent to the voters to decide as a constitutional amendment with only five sites. The legislation implementing it imposed the highest tax on casinos in the nation, required the state to buy the slot machines, restricted gambling hours and free food, and imposed other restrictions on the casino operators because some legislators really, really don’t like gambling.

There is no bill to agree on. There seems to be agreement on a number of issues, including adding table games such as blackjack and craps at all the casinos and letting the operators buy and operate the machines. But despite promises from the governor, there is no bill yet that actually spells out the details, because the details are tricky. (See today’s Sun editorial.)

This all appears to be an attempt to mollify Senate President Miller, the Building Trades Unions and casino operators like MGM who are not here yet. The radio ads backing the National Harbor casino say the special interests are blocking the vote. The ads are being paid for by competing “special interests.” Literally dozens of lobbyists in Annapolis have been hired by all the special interests on both sides of this issue.

Big delegations still not on board

Did I mention O’Malley doesn’t have the votes? Many House members still think gambling stinks as a way to raise revenue, even though they like the money. The key large Democratic delegations in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City are not totally on board, and everyone wants a slice of the action if they want any action at all

The Washington Post’s John Wagner writes that aides to the governor say he wants to hold a special session even if it fails so he can put the gambling issue behind him. Really? O’Malley wants to call an unhappy legislature back to town with no prospects of success?

This will not put a stake through the heart of the gambling vampire. Mike Miller has been pushing for gaming for over a decade; he has pushed this issue to extremes this year, causing one special session already. How will another rejection from the House deter him?

Full blown casinos with table games are likely to come some day. Letting the casino operators buy, lease and maintain their own machines seems a no brainer, and can be accomplished without a special session. A sixth casino somewhere in Prince George’s County will possibly occur some day if that county’s lawmakers can ever agree to let it happen. Voters seem likely to approve any expansion of gaming. It is easy money.

The hard part is getting 71 votes in the House of Delegates to do all that. That was true in April, and it still looks true in August. And that has nothing to do with anybody’s vacation plans.