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Panel’s deliberations on Baltimore casino have slowed

Panel’s deliberations on Baltimore casino have slowed

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ANNAPOLIS — As the gambling expansion work group nears a Wednesday deadline to recommend changes to the state’s casino gambling law, the panel’s deliberations have slowed the final decision on a facility planned for Baltimore.

The 11-member work group held a closed-door meeting on the third floor of the House of Delegates’ office building Monday to debate changes that included legalizing table games, allowing a casino in Prince George’s County and changing the tax rate on slot machine revenue.

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the Video Lottery Terminal Location Commission, said the meetings have cut into analysts’ time to complete the financial study of a slots license bid entered by CBAC Gaming LLC, a Caesars Entertainment Corp.-led group that wants to build a Harrah’s Casino on Russell Street.

Fry, who also chairs the Greater Baltimore Committee, had hoped to make a decision on the Baltimore license before the start of fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. He now said he hopes to make a decision by the end of July.

“Obviously, Pricewaterhouse[Coopers] has been a little busy this month,” Fry said. “The challenge that I have is that Pricewaterhouse is our consultant, and many of the people that are serving as the legislative services staff for this commission [are] also the ones that I utilize.

“We just haven’t been able to devote the full attention I wanted to this month.”

Fry said the Maryland State Lottery Commission is also still working on its background investigation into the group. The lottery commission is scheduled to review the background investigation Thursday, and will forward the report to the slots commission if approved.

A representative from Caesars could not be reached for comment.

Analysts may soon be free to devote time to the Baltimore licensee. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s work group considering gambling expansion met behind closed doors for about four hours Monday in an attempt to iron out a consensus prior to Wednesday’s final public meeting.

At issue is how to alter the state’s tax rate on slots — at 67 percent, now the highest in the nation — and at what rate to tax table games, should they be legalized by the General Assembly and then ratified through a statewide voter referendum.

Documents obtained from the closed meeting indicate that the group is considering recommending the legalization of table games and approving a Prince George’s County casino, with restrictions that prevent it from opening until the Baltimore casino is open for two years. The Prince George’s Casino, most likely at National Harbor, would open “no later than July 2016.”

The group is also considering establishing a gaming commission with an “expert Executive Director” which will “advise the General Assembly” on gambling issues, in an effort to avoid future work groups.

Several members of the group declined to answer questions afterward, saying that they had agreed not to discuss the closed-door meeting. John W. Morton III, the work group’s chairman, said last week it would be necessary for the group to meet in private so the 11-member panel could have a more frank discussion.

The closed meeting does not violate the state’s Open Meetings Act because the work group is not technically a public body, according to the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. To be a public body, the group would need to include at least two members who are not state employees. Only Morton fits that description.

In addition to Morton, the work group includes Matthew Gallagher, O’Malley’s chief of staff; Joseph Bryce, O’Malley’s senior policy and legislative adviser; T. Eloise Foster, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management; Jeanne Hitchcock, secretary of Appointments; Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee; Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, vice chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee; Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., chair of the Education, Business and Administration subcommittee; Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chair of Ways and Means Committee; Del. Peter A. Hammen, chair of Health and Government Operations Committee; and Del. Frank S. Turner, chair of the finance resources subcommittee.

Members of the work group rigidly enforced the meeting’s closed-door policy; even a staffer for Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, was asked to leave the meeting, which began around 10 a.m. Monday.

In a statement, Pipkin said there was “something wrong when closed doors and secret meetings are part of the policy making process.”

“While the closed-door policy of the 11-member task force does not violate the letter of the law, it most certainly violates the spirit of the law,” Pipkin said. “The work group is operating in the privacy of a windowless, third floor conference room in the Lowe House Office Building without a single member of the public present. If this isn’t a sad example of the proverbial ‘smoky back room,’ I don’t know what is.”

The group intends to meet behind closed doors again Wednesday morning before holding a public meeting at 1 p.m., at which point it could recommend that O’Malley call a special legislative session during which lawmakers would attempt to pass legislation changing the state’s gambling law.

O’Malley has said he expects to call that session the week of July 9.


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