Table Games, Medical Marijuana Bills Considered

BERLIN – With the deadline to introduce bills on the Senate side of the Maryland General Assembly arriving today, and a similar date on the House side arriving next week, dozens of bills of local importance hit the hopper in the last week or so including cross-filed bills calling for an expansion to table gambling in Maryland, medical marijuana and a bevy of bills proposed by the governor regarding new fees for bad drivers.

As the General Assembly session hit full stride this week, hundreds of bills have now been introduced on both sides of the aisle, although most have not yet come up for debate in their respective chambers and committees.

As expected a pair of bills calling for an expansion of gambling in Maryland to include table games were cross-filed in House and Senate last week. On the House side, 20 delegates, including Worcester representative Mike McDermott (R-38-B) have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation, while Baltimore County Senator Katherine Klausmeier is the lone sponsor on the Senate side.

Just four months after the state’s first slots venue opened in Cecil County, and less than one month after the second opened at Ocean Downs in Worcester County, state lawmakers are already pushing for an expansion to table games to compete with similar operations in neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The cross-filed bills would allow holders of video lottery operator’s licenses in Maryland, including the Casino at Ocean Downs, to offer table games such as poker, blackjack, craps and roulette, for example.

An expansion to table games would require the approval of the state’s voters through the referendum process. If the bills filed last week are approved, the 2012 general election could include a referendum on expanded gambling in Maryland.

While he hasn’t signed in as a co-sponsor on the Senate side, Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38) said this week he could support the legislation.

“I think we’re very much past that milestone and I think the time has come to consider an expansion to table games,” he said. “Clearly, every jurisdiction in the state supported slots in the last referendum and I think the public will support this. One day soon, it will find its way to referendum and it could be as soon as 2012.”

McDermott has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, joining 20 other Delegates across the state to sign his name to the legislation. Delegate Norman Conway (D-38B) is not one of the co-sponsors. Ironically, McDermott, who could not be reached for comment this week, told a group of Ocean City business leaders in early January to be wary of an effort to expand slots operations to include table games.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle last week introduced legislation to legalize marijuana in Maryland on a very limited basis for medicinal purposes. Similar bills passed through each chamber last year but could not be reconciled before the session expired. House Bill 291 was introduced last week and includes 61 co-sponsors, but local Delegates McDermott and Conway were not among them. On the other side, 22 Senators have co-sponsored the bill this year, including Mathias, who said this week he is averse to approving medical marijuana with strict safeguards in place.

“Under strict supervision by the state, this bill just makes sense now,” he said. “It’s been proven it can provide comfort and improve quality of life for those suffering from chronic illness. I remain steadfast on my position on public safety, but if this can help some people get through another day, I don’t see how this can be a risk to Maryland.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Martin O’Malley this week continued to press for changes in policy regarding driver’s licenses and hefty fines for excessive points accumulated in the interest of generating revenue for the cash-strapped state. In his proposed fiscal year 2012 budget, O’Malley called for penalizing chronic bad drivers with hefty fines for multiple points accumulated in addition to the fines imposed during the court process.

For example, the measure calls for a $100 fine each year for each point drivers incur on their license within five years. Under the proposal, a $500 fine would be imposed for each alcohol or drug related driving offense annually for three years, adding as much as $1,500 to the cost of a DUI. The governor’s proposal would add roughly $5 million to the state’s coffers each year.

This week, O’Malley took it a step further with a proposal to deny driver’s license renewals and vehicle registration renewals for those who fail to pay state taxes. The bill could help the state collect an estimated $40 million in delinquent taxes, but some lawmakers remain skeptical.

“I’m not certain how I feel about that proposal just yet,” said Mathias. “If someone is an absolute tax scofflaw, then I think it makes sense. However, I think most people want to pay their obligations. If you’ve lost your job or your home or just hit a rough spot in this tough economy, maybe withholding a driver’s license renewal or registration renewal can exacerbate someone’s problems. If they don’t have a license or can’t drive their car, it might prevent them from getting to work or getting a job.”