Senate passes gambling expansion bill

Politics and GovernmentElectionsLifestyle and LeisureRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyU.S. House Committee on Ways and Means

The Maryland Senate passed Gov.Martin O'Malley's gambling expansion bill on a 28-14 vote Friday, sending the legislation to a more closely divided House of Delegates when the General Assembly's special session continues Monday.

Approval came in the early evening after senators spent much of the afternoon debating and defeating hostile amendments proposed mostly by Republican opponents of a plan to allow a casino inPrince George's County.

Few of the votes were close, and most amendments failed by about a 3-to-1 margin as Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millerflexed his political muscle to pass the bill, which would permit table games at the state's five licensed casinos as well as the one proposed for Prince George's. Five senators were absent.

Miller declined to speak to the bank of television cameras and assembled reporters after final passage.

Hearings on the bill in the House Ways and Means Committee continued into the evening, with MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake among those testifying in support. House members are expected to consider amendments over the weekend before holding a vote Monday in the Ways and Means Committee.

Senators also passed legislation creating a strict liability standard for dog owners whose pets bite people without provocation — eliminating a standard allowing a dog not previously known to be vicious one free bite.

The bill, which also heads now to the House, would overturn a Court of Appeals ruling that imposed strict liability standards only on pit bulls.

Senate passage of the gambling measure came after a brief debate during which Minority LeaderE. J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, criticized the way O'Malley put together his version of the bill. Rival House and Senate gambling expansion measures failed during this year's regular 90-day session.

"We can't have a process with secret meetings and have a product we can be proud of," Pipkin said, referring to closed sessions held by the work group named by the governor to forge a consensus on legislation.

The group fell short of a consensus in June, but its work helped bring the Senate and House closer together. After negotiations that continued through much of July, O'Malley called the special session that began Thursday.

Earlier Friday, critics of gambling expansion used the bill as a platform to propose various ways to redirect the money it would raise — rolling back the recently passed income tax increase on high earners or undoing a recent toll increase or increasing spending on the developmentally disabled.

All were soundly defeated.

Among the failed amendments was one that would have stripped from the bill its approval of a new casino inPrince George's County— the most controversial change to the state's current gambling program.

The amendment, offered by Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Jim Brochin, would still have allowed the addition of table games such as poker, blackjack and roulette at the five already-licensed slots-only casinos. It was rejected on a 9-33 vote.

The only amendments accepted were those that had been approved by a committee firmly controlled by Miller, the architect of the strategy of tying the Prince George's casino to the more broadly popular table games measure.

Among the amendments approved was one offered by Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican. That change would allow the operator of the planned casino at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Allegany County to redirect 0.5 percent of its revenue into capital improvements at the site.

Edwards said the largely symbolic change was made to encourage the company, Evitts Resort LLC, to move faster in replacing the conference space it plans to occupy when it begins operations at Rocky Gap with 500 slot machines.

Evitts now has 36 months to either build new conference space or an addition to the lodge to accommodate the casino. The company recently scaled back plans for a casino with 850 slots after reporting that it was having difficulty securing a construction loan for its planned casino.

Evitts is continuing to seek a lender, Edwards said. The senator said passage of the bill could help in those efforts because it would add table games to the expected revenues.

Edwards was one of five Republicans who joined 23 Democrats in supporting the bill. Without GOP support, the measure would have fallen one vote short.

Among the Republicans who supported the bill were three who represent counties that saw local gambling bills pass Friday. They were among the few other measures Miller allowed to come to the floor, as other bills were bottled up in the Rules Committee.

The counties getting their bills were Carroll, represented by Sens. Joseph Getty and David Brinkley, and Dorchester, in the district of Sen. Richard Colburn. All voted aye.

Eight Democrats and six Republicans opposed the bill.

O'Malley was out early Friday morning, stalking the halls of the House office building in his efforts to win passage of the bill in that chamber next week.

The governor met with the Prince George's and Montgomery county delegations amid signs that his efforts and those of legislative leaders were falling into place.

Asked how he assessed the bill's prospects, an ebullient O'Malley said: "I think they're going swimmingly."

Observing the scene was Del. Michael Smigiel, an Upper Shore Republican.

"The governor's walking through the halls smiling, so someone must have succumbed to the water-boarding," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

What happens next

House gambling subcommittee will meet at noon Saturday to work on expansion bill.

House meets 10 a.m. Monday for introduction of Senate bill.

After session, House Ways and Means Committee meets to work on the bill.

Senate will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. to consider any changes the House might make to the bill it approved.

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