Maryland Senate Panel Passes Gambling Bill

A Maryland Senate committee voted 11-1 on Thursday to allow table games like blackjack and a casino site near the nation's capital, moving swiftly on the first day of a special session to expand gambling in the state.

The vote paves the way Friday for the full Senate to take up the bill backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The bill would allow a new casino in Prince George's County, where it could open in 2016 with 3,000 slot machines. The measure calls for a competitive bidding process that could include proposals for National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway. Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, who has pushed for the casino to be built at National Harbor, said the additional site would generate needed money for the county and the state.

“We think this is a win-win for the county but more importantly for the state,” Baker, a Democrat, told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The owners of Maryland Live, the state's largest casino in Anne Arundel County, say the Prince George's site would badly damage its business. Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold testified against the bill.

“This additional site will be a boa constrictor that will squeeze the life out of Maryland Live,” said Leopold, a Republican.

William Rickman, owner of the struggling Ocean Downs casino on the Eastern Shore, expressed support for the measure, which would raise the casino's proceeds from 33 percent to 43 percent of its gross revenues. He noted that his casino near Ocean City lost $2.25 million in its first year. 

“We need relief now,” Rickman said.

Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of Nevada-based MGM Resorts, talked about his hopes of building an $800 million complex at National Harbor, where he said 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs would be created by the resort.

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George's, asked Murren about a finding by New Jersey regulators that MGM's business partner in a casino in the Chinese enclave of Macau is “unsuitable” because of her father's reputed connection to Asian organized crime.

Murren said allegations relating to Pansy Ho -- MGM's business partner -- are not true. He said MGM simply decided to settle with New Jersey, and he noted MGM is in good standing in Mississippi, Illinois, Michigan and Nevada, where the company has casinos.

“We patently disagree with that point of view,” Murren said of the finding by New Jersey regulators. “It's factually incorrect, and I think it offends not only myself but the other 62,000 people that provide for their families that work for our company.”

To offset lost business to a new casino, the measure would allocate 5 percent of additional casino proceeds to Maryland Live and a planned one in Baltimore, which Caesars Entertainment has a license to build. Maryland's current 67 percent tax on casino proceeds is unusually high. The money would have to be spent on advertising and capital improvements.

“This is money that the state is replacing because we have introduced a new competitor to them, and it's revenue they would have been getting were it not for the state's decision to add that new competitor, so no one should come away with a notion that somehow this is some giveaway to some corporate interest,” said Joseph Bryce, the governor's chief legislative officer.

In addition, the measure would allow the state's larger casinos to receive an additional 6 percent of gambling proceeds, if they buy or lease their slot machines. The state now must own or lease the expensive machines.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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