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O’Malley hopeful on special session for gambling

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley said Monday he believes progress is being made toward reaching a consensus to hold a special session this summer to expand gambling.

The governor told reporters after meeting with local officials that a House of Delegates proposal to create a gaming commission to set the state’s tax rates on gambling proceeds could be the game-changer. A proposal to lower the state’s unusually high 67 percent tax rate has been a main sticking point in negotiations.

“I think once the House alternative is settled upon and reviewed by members, I think this is something that we could resolve very, very quickly, and so I would still hope with a little better than 50-50 chance that we can forge the consensus necessary around the House suggestions and come together in order to pass the House alternative,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley, a Democrat, met Monday morning in Annapolis with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to discuss allowing table games such as blackjack and a new casino site in Prince George’s County.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has said House members of a work group last month on gambling were “98 percent” in agreement on a proposal that failed to reach the necessary consensus for O’Malley to call a special session the week of July 9 as he had hoped.

The lowering of the tax rate is significant, because MGM Resorts International has said it would need to have the rate reduced to 52 percent in order to move forward with a plan to build an $800 million casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s, near the nation’s capital.

O’Malley, speaking after Monday’s meeting, tempered his optimism that a consensus could still be reached with the memory of the work group’s failure to agree last month.

“I feel like progress is being made,” the governor said. “Of course, I also thought progress was being made right up until the goal line, when the House members walked off the field and took off their helmets.”

Now, however, O’Malley is hopeful that accepting the House plan for a gaming commission means a breakthrough could be at hand.

O’Malley, who wants to resolve the matter this summer, said a decision on whether to call a special session will need to be made “within the next week to 10 days.”

That’s because the plan to expand gambling would require voter approval in November, and lawmakers face an Aug. 20 deadline to have ballot language prepared. If the proposal does not get on the ballot in November, a chance for approval won’t come again until 2014.

O’Malley is scheduled to meet with Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on Tuesday morning.

MGM has estimated building the casino at National Harbor would create 2,000 construction jobs and about 4,000 permanent jobs by the resort. The state also stands to make a significant amount of additional money from the addition of table games and a new casino, which would have about 4,000 slot machines and about 200 table games.

Supporters of the plan also note that Maryland’s casinos would become more competitive with neighboring states that already have table games.