Gambling Special Session Next Week

BERLIN — As expected, state lawmakers are heading back to Annapolis next week for a second special session on the expansion of gambling at Maryland’s existing and future casinos, including the Casino at Ocean Downs in Berlin, but exactly what is on the table remains to be seen.

The General Assembly will convene next Thursday to discuss and vote on legislation aimed expanding the state’s nascent casino gambling programs. Among the issues likely on the table include an expansion to table games, at the state’s existing and future casinos and the possible addition of a sixth approved site in Prince George’s County. Also under consideration will likely be a proposed reduction on the tax rate for the casinos.

While the framework for the discussion is known, what was not known as of mid-week is what the legislation will include. As of yesterday, a formal bill had not been introduced although it will likely borrow liberally from legislation that failed to pass at the 11th hour of the General Assembly session.

“The bill hasn’t been written yet, but it has to make sense for the taxpayers of Maryland, and it has to make sense for us down here,” said Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) this week. “Table games will almost certainly be included. Where it goes from there remains to be seen.”

Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) this week agreed the basic talking points are known, but reserved his opinions on the specifics until the bill was released. McDermott predicted the anticipated battle will largely be fought in the House, where the original bill failed during the regular session.

“When we see what the bill looks like, the lines will be drawn quickly,” he said. “Right now, it’s kind of fluid because nobody really knows exactly what we’ll be debating.”

While an expansion to table games will likely be the centerpiece of the proposed legislation, Mathias said what comes out of the special session might not be a broad brush stroke approach.

“Population density is needed for table games to make sense,” he said. “There are a lot of variables. What makes sense for Maryland Live might not make sense for Ocean Downs or Rocky Gap, for example.”

Also likely up for discussion is a relaxing of some of the restrictions placed on the Casino at Ocean Downs proposed in the legislation that failed during the regular session. The bill would have eased some of the restrictions on the types of amenities the Berlin casino could offer that were included in the original legislation approved by referendum in 2008 in the interest of protecting the resort business community nearby.

“Those restrictions put in place by the original legislation are very important,” said Mathias. “At the same time, I think there has been a rational approach and there is some middle ground there.”

McDermott agreed the growing tension over the restrictions had been eased somewhat when the casino owners and operators said they weren’t seeking a major overhaul at the Berlin facility.

“I’m obviously concerned about any local impact related to Ocean Downs,” he said. “When the bill during the session included relaxing the restrictions on Ocean Downs, everybody kind of got up in arms, but I think everybody is a little more thoughtful on some of those things now.”

McDermott said a key element of the proposed legislation could be the appointment of a committee to handle changes in the state’s gambling policies without going to referendum for every single minor issue.

“The big thing, I think, is appointing a committee to have the purview over a lot of these things,” he said. “This was created through the state’s Constitution, so any changes have to go through the referendum process.”