Fight over gambling expansion grows in Annapolis

The $1 billion casino that Prince George's County's executive is counting on to bring much-needed revenue to the county is in jeopardy as Maryland House and Senate lawmakers struggle to reach a consensus on both a gambling measure and a budget deal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley pins the blame for the Maryland legislature's collapsed budget negotiations squarely on slots, and he has suggested that expanding gambling to include table games and a sixth casino has no place in a special session.

If a session is called to avoid more than $500 million in so-called "doomsday" budget cuts -- O'Malley says lawmakers must reach a consensus before spending roughly $25,000 a day for the legislature's return to Annapolis -- the casino issue must be split apart from budget talks, he said.

"We had a great session in our state right up until the very end when the silly bomb of gambling went off," O'Malley tweeted. "I believe the gambling issue and budget issues can be separated."

Even back in February, well before the legislature's failure to pass a budget, O'Malley called the gambling issue "a distraction."

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, also blames Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.'s "obsession" with the gambling legislation for the late-night budget collapse.

The three leaders are scheduled to meet Tuesday.

The gambling legislation had plenty of enemies in Annapolis while the General Assembly was in session, from Baltimore delegates wary of the impact a $1 billion casino at National Harbor would have on theirown gambling site, to House leaders who simply believe the state is betting too heavily on gambling to solve its budget woes.

Now lawmakers like Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard, the unwilling chaperone of the bill while it was before a House panel, say the bill doesn't deserve the legislature's time during a special session.

Turner told the Howard County Chamber of Commerce that it's his role to impede the bill's passage to prevent Maryland from becoming the Las Vegas of the East Coast.

Even some delegates who support Baker's proposal for a high-end destination casino --at National Harbor, a convention destination along the Potomac River that the county executive says would attract out-of-state customers-- admit the budget must be the legislature's primary focus.

Del. Justin Ross, D-Prince George's, who worked closely with Baker in the final days of gambling negotiations, said he would accept the casino issue being left out of a special session.

The anti-gambling rhetoric has reinvigorated lobbying efforts to ensure that a handshake agreement reached in the eleventh hour of negotiations between House and Senate leaders -- one that would have brought the gambling issue to a statewide referendum -- be voted on by both chambers.

Miller says the gambling agreement that was reached should still be passed by the legislature and that he is "frustrated" it has not been.

Baker boasted of the millions in local revenues Prince George's County would collect when a casino at National Harbor opened. And despite all the grief O'Malley may be getting thanks to an ineffective legislative session, Baker told the governor the county is getting just as much grief over a lack of new funds to help close budget gaps.

Del Jolene Ivey, D-Prince George's, who supports bringing a new casino to her county, is holding out hope that the measure could pass this year.

"Look, if you can get gay marriage passed, it seems that this wouldn't be as controversial," she said. "But we'll see."

Brian Hughes contributed to this report.