O’Malley to depart on trade mission with Md. businesses

Gov. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to jet off to Asia this morning with 68 Maryland business leaders in tow to drum up some export and investment deals for the state.

“We’re on our way to Asia for an economic development mission & I’m looking forward to representing MD!” the governor posted to his twitter feed just after 10 a.m.

The mission will spend 10 days total in three countries. China and South Korea are both major export markets for the state, and Vietnam is viewed as an up-and-comer in the region. But, some believe that governors would be better served by traveling to less exotic destinations.

Andrew J. Cassey, an assistant professor at Washington State University, said trade missions are a “pretty risk-free bet,” but said governors should stay closer to home, in places like Mexico, Canada or Germany.

“What does seem to work is going back to your best locations and drumming even more business,” Cassey said. “The best locations for governors to go on these missions are close places, and places that they have a lot of exports to anyways.”

Canada is Maryland’s No. 1 export market, with $1.6 billion in goods shipped to this country’s northern neighbor in 2010. That was good for 15 percent of the state’s exports. The Netherlands was the second-largest export market for Maryland last year and Mexico, the fifth-largest.

But current and former state officials argue strengthening ties to China, and the rest of Asia, is essential, especially now as the state slogs through a slow economic recovery.

“Yes, China is definitely an area that is growing in significance to us. So is Korea,” Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian Johansson said. “If you have the size of the markets, the number of people, the spending power they’ll have in a couple of years, we want Maryland businesses to be a part of that.”

O’Malley meets Holocaust survivor

Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz met with Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thurday afternoon. The two chatted for about 40 minutes, with much of the conversation centered on Bretholz’s escape from a train carrying him to a Nazi death camp.

O’Malley gave Bretholz a framed copy of a bill he signed into law only hours earlier. The new law requires SNCF, the French national railroad, to disclose its role in the Holocaust to allow its subsidiary Keolis Rail Services America, to bid on a lucrative MARC train contract.

Some 76,000 people were deported from France on SNCF rail cars. Bretholz, then 21, escaped before his train reached Auschwitz with 1,000 people aboard. (Check out Bretholz on camera here.)

“This is a victory,” Bretholz said of the legislation. “This is a company that did terrible things.”

He showed O’Malley a French book that listed the names, home towns and birth dates of the 76,000 deportees. Each survivor was denoted with a dot next to his or her names.

“We don’t have many dots — 2,000 among 76,000,” he said.

The meeting included many lighter moments, too. One came when supporters of the SNCF bill told the governor a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives, including three from Maryland, wrote to congratulate him on passage of the bill.

“Bipartisan?” O’Malley said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever received a bipartisan letter from Congress.”

O’Malley to sign Holocaust disclosure bill

Gov. Martin O’Malley will sign into law Thursday a measure that will require the French national railroad to disclose its role in the Holocaust so a subsidiary can bid on a lucrative MARC train contract.

The move drew praise from federal lawmakers, who have considered legislation in recent years that would give U.S. courts jurisdiction over some cases involving the deportations conducted on SNCF trains during World War II.

“With the Maryland legislation, the first ofits kind in the country, Maryland will be a true national leader in providing such transparency to your taxpayers,” eight U.S. representatives wrote to O’Malley.

Maryland Reps. Dutch Ruppersburger, John Sarbanes and Elijah Cummings were among those who signed the letter.

They wrote: “In Congress, we have introduced the Holocaust Rail Justice Act (H.R. 1193 I S. 634) which would provide SNCF’s victims with their long awaited and much deserved day in court. By finally forcing SNCF out of the shadows, and by precluding SNCF from hiding behind foreign sovereign immunity, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act will finally provide this accountability. The Holocaust survivors who have fought for over a decade to hold SNCF accountable deserve no less.”

The Maryland legislation targets SNCF, the French national railroad. From 1942 to 1944, some 76,000 people were herded into SNCF cattle cars and shipped to the French border, where German engineers drove the last leg of the trip to concentration camps.

SNCF owns a majority of Keolis America, which, through subsidiary Keolis Rail Services America, is seeking the contract to run MARC’s Camden and Brunswick lines.

The bill, HB 520, would require SNCF to pay for a team of archivists to comb through the company’s war-era records for those relevant to the deportations, catalog them, digitize them and post them online in a “searchable and analyzable” format. The records would have to be made available before Keolis could be awarded a MARC contract.

Miller not optimistic about Md. gas tax hike

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Friday he doesn’t think lawmakers can round up the votes to raise the state’s gas tax during a special session this fall.

Miller, the most powerful advocate of raising the fuel levy in the General Assembly, told Brucy DePuyt on NewsChannel 8 that “we’re not going to be able to get the votes to raise the gas tax in October.”

More from Miller: “The problem is gas hovering almost to $5 a gallon. I don’t think public sentiment is going to be there in terms of the population, it’s not going to be there in terms of the legislature, especially with the uncertainty in the Middle East. So… somewhere in the near future we’re going to have to deal with it. But my prediction is with the current uncertainty, and the high cost of gas, we’re not going to be able to get the votes to raise the gas tax in October.”

That came just days after Miller sent a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley and other lawmakers pressing for the gas tax and other mechanisms to raise transportation dollars to be on the agenda when the General Assembly returns in the fall for a special session on congressional redistricting.

Transportation funding has been a top issue for O’Malley since the legislature wrapped up its session last month. He has lobbied for the business community’s support on the issue, but the question of raising the gas tax has split traditional allies in the private sector.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding has recommended the state seek $800 million in new transportation revenues every year.  Raising the gas tax — which has been at 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992 — would likely be a part of any revenue package put forth by O’Malley or legislative leaders.

Bumping the tax to 33.5 cents and indexing it to inflation would bring in an additional $385 million, the commission estimated. Applying the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline and diesel sales would yield $580 million.

Other options include raising driver license fees by $10 to yield $15 million, bumping transit fares by 25 percent, for $30 million, and raising emissions inspection fees by $10, to bring in $15 million.

Jersey casino blames bad month on “bad luck”

Slot machines have been pumping millions into Maryland’s coffers since the first terminals were opened to the public Sept. 27. But table games, which will certainly be debated during the 2012 legislative session and likely with more fervor than they were this year, may not be such a safe bet for the state.

Tropicana Casino and Resort had the worst April of any of the 11 casinos in Atlantic City, which altogether didn’t have a great month. In AC casino terms, that means $289.4 million in revenue from slots and table games, down from $311.5 million a year ago, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

So, what ails the Trop?

“We ran very unlucky,” Mark Giannantonio, Tropicana’s outgoing chief executive officer, told the newspaper.

He said one blackjack player won $5.8 million at high-stakes tables in April.

“If it hadn’t been for bad luck at the tables, we would have had a good month,” Giannantonio said.

Table game revenues were down 54 percent, to $3.2 million. And blackjack tables actually lost money, some $1.86 million, according to a New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement report.

O’Malley signs wine, casino bills

Tuesday’s bill signing ceremony will be dominated by coverage over the state’s “Dream Act,” which will allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. But, Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislative leaders will also put their pens to new laws regarding casinos, wine and workers’ compensation insurance.

O’Malley, Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. will sign a bill that lawmakers hope will make casino owners play nice. The legislation, SB 383 and HB 868, was prompted by the battles waged by The Cordish Cos. and the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club over the Anne Arundel slots license.

The law will bar licensed casino owners from preventing or delaying the opening of other gambling operations in the state, but stops short of limiting free speech, giving the Maryland Lottery Agency authority to referee disputes between casino owners “to the fullest extent allowed by the First Amendment.”

The General Assembly also sweetened the pot for casino developers considering a bid on the gaming license at Rocky Gap Lodge & Resort. The law – SB 512 – will knock the tax rate on slots proceeds from 67 percent to 50 percent for 10 years, and waive $3 million in license fees. The Video Lottery Facility Location Commission is expected to begin seeking a developer – the third time the state will do so – next month.

Oenophiles will also have something to toast. Lawmakers passed a watered-down version of direct wine shipping legislation this year, allowing in- and out-of-state wineries to ship directly to Maryland consumers, and O’Malley is scheduled to sign SB 248 and HB 1175 today. Supporters of the legislation had hoped to include retailers in the bill, but staunch opposition from the state’s liquor lobby removed retailers from the bill. So, we have likely not seen the last of direct wine shipping legislation.

O’Malley will also sign a bill that will subject the Injured Workers’ Insurance Fund to the state’s 2 percent premium tax.

IWIF has been exempted from the tax as the state’s quasi-public insurer of last resort. But, the company’s business extends well beyond that role. It has 21 percent of the state’s workers’ compensation insurance market and is the largest such insurer in the state, according to legislative analysts.