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Democratic leader wavering on gaming vote

The chair of the House of Delegates gambling subcommittee who defended the expansion of gambling that will appear on the ballot this fall is telling constituents he “would have voted against the bill” if he hadn’t been the floor leader.

In an interview, Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat, also declined to say how he planned to vote on Question 7, which would add a sixth casino and table games for all of the state’s casinos and reduce taxes for their operators.

In a letter to the Columbia Flier, Turner said, “I have voted my conscience on most legislation throughout the years I have served in Annapolis.” But he said he felt obligated to vote for the gambling legislation, which passed with the bare minimum of 71 votes.

“I have never seen a subcommittee chair, in the 18 years of my service, defend a bill on the floor and then vote against the bill,” Turner wrote. The delegate said he “had to defend the bill for over six hours” on the House floor during the August special session “and fight off over 50 amendments.”

In the letter, Turner listed a long series of popular bills he had opposed, such as returning a budget surplus to taxpayers while boosting state school aid without a funding source, and building the Inter-County Connector from Laurel to Rockville. He promised, “I will continue my independent positions as I evaluate each bill on its merits.”

As chair of the Financial Resources subcommittee of the Ways & Means Committee, handling all bills on gambling and horse racing, Turner has made no secret of his opposition to rapid expansion of gambling in locations throughout Maryland. He opposed calling the August special session, and reiterated last week that much of the proposal could have been passed by the legislature in a regular session — though voters would still have had to approve some aspects of it as required by the state constitutional amendment that passed in 2008.

“You could have passed my table games bill three years ago,” said Turner. That 2011 bill, with 19 co-sponsors, including four Republicans, never made it out of committee.

Turner said, “We could have extended the hours” of the casinos, as the August legislation did, and transferred the ownership of the video lottery terminals to the operators. Those actions don’t even require voter approval.

“All of that you could have done,” and gained $199 million in revenues for the state, Turner said. Question 7 has all those features, plus a sixth casino in Prince George’s County, but the extra casino only brings in $30 million more. Much of the proceeds from the casinos is supposed to go into the Education Trust Fund, but local jurisdictions, horse racing and other programs get more than half of the pie.

How much money this expansion of gambling will raise and how many jobs a new casino will raise are being hotly debated by opposing gaming interests. They are spending more than $34 million to sway voters for and against Question 7.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and probably on both sides,” Turner said. With all the mailers and commercials, “it’s been a windfall for the post office and the TV stations. It’s good economic development, even if it doesn’t pass.”

He agreed with the observation that the referendum on gambling appears to be close. “I think a lot of people just don’t like the way it was done,” said Turner.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has said that regardless of the outcome of the ballot question, he hopes this vote will put the issue of gambling behind him for the rest of his final term as governor.

Not so, Turner said. “This issue is never going to be dead. Once you have gambling, you always have to tweak it.”

“We already have bills for a seventh and eighth casino,” Turner said, one for Harford County and another for Charles County. The VFWs “don’t like the bill,” which allowed each veterans post to have up to five pull-tab lottery machines — except in Montgomery County. (Turner had staunchly opposed such an expansion of gambling that had been repeatedly introduced by legislators across Maryland. But he finally accepted it on the day of the final vote to bring in more support for the bill as a whole.)

Other interests want slot machines, too, Turner said. That includes bar owners, the airport and fire halls, and he even thinks racetracks, once considered the prime location for slot machines, will be looking to finally bring them on.

With all that pent-up interest in gambling, “I’m one of the busiest people down there,” Turner said.

 

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