A high-stakes bill to expand gambling in Maryland is still unsettled in Annapolis, but one thing is clear: Right now, the payout is going to lobbyists.
Various casino interests have hired the state capital's best-known lobbyists — including the 10 highest-paid — to advance, shape or kill the legislation. Four of them used to work for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. A fifth was chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch until late last year.
Howard County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the bill, which would allow table games and a sixth casino in the state. "I can't think of a single lobbyist who is not involved with it."
There's hardly a bill — or an interest — in Annapolis that doesn't have a lobbyist attached to it. When state law touches high-profit and highly regulated industries such as health and energy, the hearing rooms begin to fill with well-heeled, iPad-toting professional advocates.
Last year, the nearly 700 people registered as State House lobbyists took in more than $30 million in compensation, according to the ethics commission.
Even by those standards, the star power attracted to this year's gambling bill stands out. "It is a full jobs program for the Maryland Government Relations Association," said Del. Bill Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
Nothing illustrated the point more clearly than the scene at a Ways and Means subcommittee meeting this week. The panel's eight members studied the bill and hashed through details to prepare for the full committee's hearing. Nearly twice as many lobbyists stood within earshot, taking notes.
Some were working for businesses that have licenses to operate a casino, such as the Cordish Cos., which will run the one at Arundel Mills. Others were there on behalf of Caesars Entertainment, the company poised to build the state's second-largest casino in Baltimore. Another group was pushing for the Peterson Cos., a development firm that wants to build a $1 billion casino in Prince George's County.
By one estimate, the Senate-passed gambling bill could mean an extra $155 million per year for the Caesars-led group if it gets the Baltimore license. The Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills would see $174 million. Penn National Gaming's Hollywood Casino Perryville could take in $56 million more.
In total, the Senate legislation would mean $886 million more in revenue for the gambling companies, according to figures distributed to Ways and Means committee members by Peterson lobbyists.
The same analysis shows that state of Maryland, which does not have a paid lobbyist in the fray, would get just $156 million more.
"It does a lot to help the operators and not a lot to help the state," said Turner, who has shown little enthusiasm for the Senate-passed bill.
The legislation passed by the Senate would authorize a casino in Prince George's County, whose leadership opted out of the state's gambling program when it was drafted in 2007. The bill doesn't say exactly where in the county the casino should go, but County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has spent days in Annapolis pushing the National Harbor development.
Since a sixth casino would take profits from the five already authorized, the bill is designed to give them some goodies. The state's 67 percent tax on slot machine revenues would drop by 7 percentage points. (Another eight points would be knocked off because operators would assume the responsibility for buying slot machines, which the state now handles.)
Most significantly to Marylanders, the bill would allow all of Maryland's casinos to offer table games like poker and blackjack, not just the slot machines currently permitted. Casino owners say these games attract a younger, more vibrant crowd.
People will fly in for table games, they say. Slots don't have that appeal.
The legislation is confusing — it includes provisions that would put two questions on the November ballot. Part of the bill requires 71 House votes for passage while another part needs 85. And with four days left before the annual 90-day session ends Monday night, all the lobbying has some lawmakers concerned.
"What does it mean if it takes this amount of effort to get members to understand and be comfortable with the legislation?" asked Del. Melony G. Griffith, an opponent of the legislation who chairs the Prince George's County delegation. "It is impossible to provide that level of intense information to the citizens."
Griffith said jokingly that she'd like to see a chart — with pictures — that shows which lobbyists are on which side of the bill.