ANNAPOLIS — About 10 hours after the General Assembly adjourned its second special session in a marathon legislative season, Gov. Martin O’Malley praised a gambling expansion bill that he hopes will put an end to persistent legislative gridlock caused by the divisive issue.
During a bill signing ceremony Wednesday morning, O’Malley thanked House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, for finding a way to pass legislation that allows a sixth state casino in Prince George’s County — either at Rosecroft Raceway or, more likely, National Harbor — and legalizes table games at every facility, pending voter approval in November.
“We are now able to put this issue behind us and move forward,” said O’Malley, who was joined by Busch and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, filling in for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s.
Miller, the most forceful proponent of expanded gambling in the legislature, said Tuesday night that he would spend time with his brother, visiting from Texas, rather than attend the bill-signing ceremony.
The gambling bill’s fate was never in doubt in Miller’s highly disciplined chamber. The final bill passed 32-14 early Wednesday morning, after being heavily amended by the House.
“[Busch] had a much more difficult path than myself,” Miller said after adjourning the Senate after midnight. “It was a landslide in the Senate, as it has been for several years. We’re just very grateful that the House passed the bill.”
Busch agreed that reaching 71 votes — the total needed for passage — was not a simple task.
“I think [O’Malley lobbyist] Joe Bryce and I talked to everybody in the House of Delegates at least 10 times in the last two days,” Busch said. “It was just a yeoman’s jobs in doing this.”
The final vote in the House was 71-58.
The speaker, never a proponent of gambling as a mechanism to fund state government, said he was bending to the will of Maryland voters, 58 percent of whom voted to approve a limited, slots-only casino program in 2008.
“It passed with [almost] 60 percent of the vote and when I saw that, I said to myself, put this in perspective,” Busch said. “There’s no governor in the state of Maryland that’s got 60 percent of the vote since William Donald Schaefer in 1986.
“That means three out of five Marylanders believe that there should be this type of gambling in the state of Maryland. … It was our obligation to put the best product we possibly could on the ballot for the citizens of Maryland.”
O’Malley said the expansion would create 2,300 permanent jobs, plus some temporary constructions jobs, if voters again give the nod to gambling. He also pointed to millions in savings once casino operators are forced to buy their own slots machines, which the state currently owns or leases.
House amendments that lowered the tax rate on casino operators would reduce the take for the state’s Education Trust Fund by $32 million when compared with a bill that passed the Senate Friday, but the state should still see a $174 million bump by fiscal 2017, assuming a Prince George’s casino is authorized and opens by mid-2016.
By fiscal 2017, casino operators are expected to net nearly $1 billion annually.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat who, along with Miller, has been among the most vocal proponents of a resort casino at National Harbor, said he would continue to campaign for that site over Rosecroft Raceway, which is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc. The state’s Video Lottery Location Commission is charged with running a competitive bid process for state casino licenses.
“I’m in favor of the nice, world-class facility at National Harbor,” Baker said.
Not everyone is on board. In a statement, Comptroller Peter Franchot continued to spar with O’Malley and legislative leaders over their decision to convene a special session on gambling.
“While the events of the past few days have been extremely profitable for the national gambling industry, they have been calamitous to those who still value open, transparent and progressive government,” the statement said.