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Heat is on for session

Gov. Martin O’Malley is calling in the big guns of local politics Monday to help blast through a gambling impasse that snarled the General Assembly’s budget debate in April and has vexed the governor all summer long.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown proclaimed his support for a special session in a letter to the editor published by The Gazette on Friday.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III will meet O’Malley in the State House, where he will ask them to lean harder on their delegations to vote for legislation that would land a casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a former Prince George’s County delegate, has also gotten involved, proclaiming his support for a special session in a letter to the editor published by The Gazette on Friday.

But a leading public policy expert is not convinced Brown and the chief executives of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions have the firepower to convince strong-willed members of the House of Delegates to surrender.

“I’m sure that’s the intent — you get as much ammunition as you possibly can and you use the big ammunition,” said Donald F. Norris, professor and public policy chairman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “I don’t think, quite frankly, that the lieutenant governor’s editorial or Leggett’s support is going to have much support with the delegates from those jurisdictions that are strongly opposed to it.

“I think the difficulty is going to be getting the 71 votes in the House.”

O’Malley has worked hard to convene a special session since a work group failed to reach consensus on legislation that could have allowed a National Harbor casino, legalized table games, shifted the responsibility of buying slot machines from the state to the casino operators and lowered the slots tax rate.

The governor was disappointed that three members of the House voted against an agreement reached by the eight other members of the work group, which included senators and O’Malley administration officials.

O’Malley has since pulled delegates aside to determine whether there is enough support in the House to pass the gambling legislation. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, has also lobbied members of the House to support a gambling expansion bill.

Meanwhile, radio and television ads paid for by a coalition of labor unions and businesses are encouraging citizens to call lawmakers and demand a gambling expansion. Alexandria, Va.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance is airing ads opposing the expansion because it would lead to casino owners paying lower taxes, after the legislature just raised the income tax on Marylanders earning $100,000 or more and couples earning more than $150,000.

Legislation would have to be passed before Aug. 20 so the question could be put to state voters at a referendum in November. O’Malley plans to meet with the presiding officers Tuesday morning.

So far, delegates do not appear to have budged.

“It’s not quite clear that all the tea leaves are pointing in the direction of the special session,” Norris said. “The only way a special session is called is if it is likely the votes are lined up in the House.”

James R. Karmel, a history professor at Harford Community College and an expert on the mid-Atlantic gambling industry, said it’s in the state’s best interest for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to find a way to round up the votes needed for passage in his chamber.

But Karmel says the table game issue ought to be divorced from whether there should be a sixth casino at National Harbor.

“I think it’s great that the governor and legislature [are] still considering the special session,” Karmel said. “When it fell through after the work group’s failed consensus, I was disheartened. … If Maryland is to be competitive with its neighboring states, the casinos need to have [table “” not found /]
. It’s good they’re considering something.”

But that consideration is moot, Norris said, unless O’Malley emphatically supports gambling expansion. The governor is seeking consensus but has never been a cheerleader for using gambling to raise state revenue.

“If the governor wanted, he could probably weigh in and get it,” Norris said, but “nowhere in the country has the promise of gambling revenues actually paid off.”

Pro-gambling interests disagree with Norris’ assessment.

Just last week, a study commissioned by MGM Resorts International Inc. the potential operator of the proposed casino, suggested Marylanders spend between $620 million and $830 million at out-of-state casinos that have table games.

The analysis, by Union Gaming Analytics LLC, also suggested that lowering the tax rate on slot machines would help Maryland casinos offer better amenities.