Ocean Downs Named As Possible Slots Parlor Site

ANNAPOLIS – Just four days into a special General Assembly session called to address the state’s estimated $1.7 billion structural deficit, it appears partisan posturing and rhetoric are already standing in the way of meaningful discourse on the issues.

Gov. Martin O’Malley called the session, which began in earnest on Monday night, to bring lawmakers in from every corner of the state to debate his proposed solution to the burgeoning deficit problem. O’Malley’s solution includes, among other things, comprehensive tax reforms including substantial increases in some cases, and a proposal to authorize as many as 15,000 slot machines at five select locations across the state including 3,500 at Ocean Downs near Berlin.

The governor’s slots plan also calls for

4,250 gaming machines at an undetermined site in Anne Arundel County, 2,500 in Cecil County, 1,500 at a location near Rocky Gap in Alleghany County, and 3,500 in Baltimore City, tentatively planned for a site near the downtown stadium complex.

Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) said yesterday he and fellow Delegate Norm Conway learned late last week Ocean Downs had been included in O’Malley’s slots bill, and while the local lawmakers were taken aback somewhat, it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

“Norm and I didn’t know Ocean Downs would be specifically mentioned in the bill, but in as much as the track has been referenced in other slots bills over the years, it wasn’t a shocker,” he said.

While the resort business community is clearly opposed to slots anywhere in Maryland, Mathias said the response he has gotten from the private sector doesn’t precisely match the resort’s stance.

“What I’m hearing overwhelmingly is that people would prefer slots if it means holding the line on their taxes,” he said. “I’m hearing tax containment rather than opposition to slots. I’m hearing if this is going to happen in Maryland, let’s get the benefits in terms of protecting small business and getting improvements for Route 589 etc.”

O’Malley’s slots bill is accompanied by a sister piece of legislation that would require a referendum in the November 2008 election allowing voters across the state to decide the issue. While the governor’s bill on the referendum would let a simple majority of the voters in the state decide the slots issue, a bill introduced this week by Delegate Shane Pendergrass (D-13-Howard County) would allow the voters of a specific district or region to decide whether or not they wanted slots.

“It’s a sort of local courtesy bill and it makes a lot of sense,” said Mathias. “If the voters of Worcester County, for example, overwhelmingly supported slots, Ocean Downs would be the place. If they didn’t support slots in the referendum, another location where the majority supported it could be chosen.”

Slots are just part of O’Malley’s revenue-generating solution to the state’s structural deficit problem. Also included in the plan are comprehensive tax reforms including increases in the sales tax, gas tax and income taxes for those in the highest brackets. The governor’s plan also includes closing corporate tax loopholes and increasing the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack.

While the slots proposal has been the lightning rod in the debate, O’Malley’s proposed tax reforms have been equally divisive. The plan calls for each of the proposals to be taken as part of the whole, and it remains to be seen if state lawmakers can agree on just one part of the equation much less the entire package.

In his opening statement to members of both houses at the outset of the special session on Monday night, O’Malley appealed to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to put aside partisan bickering and move toward consensus on the issues in front of them.

“As prior generations might have warned us, there is no progress without sacrifice, no shared return without shared investment, and no future better than this present, unless we are willing to work for it,” the governor said. “This inherited structural deficit – a deficit which has now cast its shadow over the progress of our people for the last five years – can no longer be deferred. The storm is upon us; and this looming shortfall threatens to do grave damage to the very quality of life that our neighbors have elected us to defend.”

Forging a consensus is the primary challenge for the governor as he attempts to forward his deficit reduction plan and to a large degree it will come down to whether O’Malley can bring enough Republican lawmakers around to his way of thinking. If the official response from the Maryland Republican Party leadership shortly after the speech on Monday is any indication, the session will likely get mired in partisanship.

“Martin O’Malley was in usual form – all rhetoric and no substance,” said Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dr. Jim Pelura.  “An overwhelming majority of Marylanders, including Democrats, do not want their taxes going up.  Governor O’Malley knows how unpopular his tax-and-spend plan is.  That’s why he is trying to make backroom deals to push it through without giving the public a chance to object.  This is politics at its worst.”

Pelura went on to say the governor’s plan is flawed because it attacks the revenue side of the equation without addressing the state’s spending problem, which has caused the deficit to begin with. However, it is important to note O’Malley announced this summer $280 million in spending cuts in advance of his revenue-generating plan.

Nonetheless, Pelura said this week the state’s spending habits and not its ability to generate revenue, was at the heart of the budget deficit problem.

“The bottom line is that Maryland state government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” he said.  “Working families need to work within their means and so should the state government.  These regressive taxes are going to hurt those who are least able to pay.”

While there has been both real and perceived posturing from both camps at least publicly, Mathias said yesterday partisanship and bickering has not pervaded the House and Senate chambers in Annapolis thus far in the early session.

“I’m not seeing much of that, at least in the working environment of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “I think everybody is coming together and everybody is being earnest in their deliberations. There are going to be some compromises along the way and that’s where you’ll see some head-butting, but so far, there has been a spirit of cooperation.”

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