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Senate committee passes expanded gambling bill

ANNAPOLIS — A Senate panel on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would expand Maryland’s casino gambling program, setting up consideration by the full Senate Friday morning.

The Budget and Taxation Committee approved SB 1 in an 11-1 vote after holding a public hearing and deliberating on amendments for nearly four hours. Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel, cast the only dissenting vote.

DeGrange represents the district that includes the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills mall, which stands to lose some business if legislation passes that allows a casino to be built in Prince George’s County.

DeGrange said it was unwise for the General Assembly to authorize a new casino without all of the five already approved gambling facilities being operational and “without knowing exactly what the take is going to be.”

“We’re changing the rules, and I have concerns about that,” DeGrange said.

A handful of amendments were offered and approved, including one that would force a portion of table game taxes from a Baltimore casino to go toward school construction, and another that authorizes the Education Trust Fund to pay for early childhood education programs.

Another amendment provides additional protections for minority business participation in casino maintenance projects, and another allows a new panel, the State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission, the authority to impose a $500 per table game fee on casino operators. That money would go toward the Maryland State Lottery Agency’s gambling addiction program.

Committee members spent most of the afternoon listening to various interest groups testify on the administration-backed legislation. Representatives from Baltimore casino licensee Caesars Entertainment Corp. threw their support behind the bill, as did representatives from MGM Resorts International Inc., the casino giant that wants to build a facility at National Harbor.

Maryland Live owner The Cordish Cos. was on the other side of the debate. Joseph Weinberg, who heads the company’s casino gambling division, reiterated the company’s opposition. He said if Cordish knew there would be a casino in Prince George’s County, the company would have built a different casino in Hanover.

“We would not have made the investment we made if there was a sixth license on the table,” Weinberg told the committee. “We may not have applied at all, but we certainly would have built a very, very different facility.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, who has championed expanding the state’s casino gambling program since the regular legislative session, was in the hearing room for much of the afternoon, but left before lawmakers voted on the bill.

Earlier in the day, Miller said it would be a battle to guide the bill toward final approval in the legislature, even though similar legislation sailed through the Senate in the regular session before being stopped in its tracks in the House of Delegates.

“It’s kind of like herding cats,” Miller said. “You know, in terms of the various interests. … I think we’re going to get it done, but if we don’t, it’s not because we haven’t tried.”

Miller said his preoccupation with the gambling issue stems from analyses that show Maryland residents are traveling to Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — states that allow table games at their casinos. He’s been a proponent of a casino at the gleaming National Harbor development because of its proximity to wealthy Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., tourists.

“[Casinos are] not a good source of money for government, there’s no doubt about it,” Miller said. “But [at] the same time, we have needs … we need to retain that money here, we need to cut taxes, we need no more tax increases, and at the same time we need to build schools and keep Maryland No. 1 in terms of education.”

The bill could be given final approval by the Senate Friday afternoon. The House of Delegates, where gambling has been a tougher sell, convenes to consider gambling expansion Friday morning.

Miller said the Senate’s session on Friday would not be a quick one.

“I expect a lot of debate,” he said.

Much of that debate may come from the chamber’s Republican caucus, which started Thursday morning by criticizing Gov. Martin O’Malley for summoning lawmakers to the State House for the second special session this year.

Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, said much of the caucus’ opposition stems from how the process played out. Pipkin was unhappy when one of his staff members was barred from two June meetings of a task force studying gambling expansion.

“I don’t think this is a Republican or Democrat issue, particularly in the Senate,” Pipkin said. “They met behind secret closed doors. We’re concerned … about the process.”