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Baltimore delegate supporting expanded gambling

ANNAPOLIS — Fissures may be developing in the previously united Baltimore delegation to the House of Delegates, whose chairman said last month that city lawmakers would stand together to oppose expanded gambling unless Baltimore receives a legislative goody bag.

Del. Melvin L. Stukes, a city Democrat who sits on the Ways and Means Committee and Finance Resources Subcommittee, said after a Saturday afternoon subcommittee meeting that he would support a bill passed by the Senate Friday that would put a casino in Prince George’s County, legalize table games and make adjustments to casino operators’ tax rate.

“Oh, I’m on board with the bill,” Stukes said. “I thought [casino gambling] should have happened 25 years ago.”

He added that city delegates should not hold the casino bill hostage. Del. Curtis S. Anderson, the delegation chairman, has said delegates should vote against the bill unless the city receives incentives, including increased bonding authority for school construction.

“Don’t get so cotton-picking greedy,” Stukes said.

Stukes also took issue with a Senate committee amendment that would force Baltimore’s share of table game revenue to be spent wholly on school construction. He said the city, with the highest property taxes in the state, should use some of allotment on lowering that tax.

He said the money – 5 percentage points of a 20 percent tax on table games – wasn’t enough to make a huge difference, anyway.

“If I had my way, I’d tear down every school in Baltimore city and rebuild them all,” Stukes said. “I would like to see [the tax] shared. … It’s not going to build a school.”

He said he plans to offer an amendment that would prevent the tax share from being spent solely on school construction.

Stukes later said that not all of his city colleagues agreed with his position. But the delegate’s support of the gambling bill and reluctance to spend all revenue on school construction raises some questions about how some of the Baltimore delegation’s 18 members intend to vote on the chamber floor.

That vote may not come until late Tuesday, according to Del. Frank S. Turner, D-Howard, who chairs the House subcommittee that deals with gambling issues. Turner said the Ways and Means Committee would meet Monday, but may not be able to vote the gambling bill to the floor of the House until Tuesday morning.

“I think it still needs more work,” Turner said, later adding that there would be amendments offered on just about every aspect of the bill, from the various tax breaks it provides to casino owners to the authority granted a new gambling commission. He wasn’t sure how many would actually be accepted by the panel.

Turner, who has been wary of adjusting the state’s 67 percent slots tax, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, was not pulling strings to ensure the gambling legislation came out of committee in a certain form.
“I don’t feel pressured,” Turner said. “But, at the same time, I’m trying to create a work product that the House can be proud of.”

A Saturday afternoon meeting of Turner’s subcommittee was mostly uneventful, as members were briefed on SB 1 as amended and passed by the Senate. But some delegates were concerned about a provision in the bill that bans campaign contributions from gambling companies, a measure that Senate Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to remove from the bill Friday afternoon.

Amendments are expected to be offered to strike that provision. Stukes said he would introduce one that would clarify that businesses that are not primarily gambling companies, but are owners in gambling interests, are also not able to contribute to campaigns.

Casino owners, lobbyists and members of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration were all in attendance as state fiscal analysts walked members through the bill in a 90-minute meeting. O’Malley himself met with members of the House panel before the meeting began shortly after noon.

Joseph Weinberg, who heads the gambling division of Maryland Live casino owner The Cordish Cos., attended the meeting and spoke for several minutes with Turner and Busch’s staff.

Cordish Cos. Chairman David S. Cordish and his partners have cried foul on the state’s plan to allow a sixth casino, after the developer expected there to be no competition to its south. Cordish has said the state is reneging on a deal it made with the five already-approved casinos in Maryland.

But Stukes took issue with that, too. He said Cordish should have known that Prince George’s County – and especially National Harbor – was destined for a casino.

“Cordish is a smart, shrewd businessman,” Stukes said. “He knew it was coming. … [But] I sympathize with him. I don’t blame him for being mad.”