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Investors are hopeful Maryland lawmakers will consider a proposal to build a slot machine parlor off the Virginia coast and over Charles County waters should they reconvene in July for a second special session to address an expansion of gaming in the state.
With less than two weeks remaining in the legislature’s regular session, county lawmakers in March submitted legislation authorizing a slots parlor at the Riverboat on the Potomac, a restaurant in Colonial Beach, Va., which juts out over the Potomac River.
A Colonial era agreement gives Maryland jurisdictions legal control of the entire Potomac, with Virginia control beginning at the Virginia shore.
Proposed by Virginia company Blueridge Ventures, the casino could support 600 slot machines within six months of approval and eventually expand to 1,500 slots.
But the bill never received serious consideration as lawmakers, working frantically in the session’s waning hours to pass a budget plan that would avoid more than $500 million in cuts, never took a final vote on any gambling legislation before adjourning April 9.
“No gaming bill got through [the regular session]. We were kind of the little caboose at the end of the train, and the train never left the station. People were just concentrating, and rightfully so, on other issues,” said former Charles County delegate Murray Levy, who now represents Blueridge Ventures as a lobbyist for Annapolis firm Alexander & Cleaver.
Lawmakers returned to Annapolis earlier this month for a special session to finish work on a $35.5 billion budget for fiscal 2013. Amid hearty Republican opposition, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a spending plan which included income tax hikes on higher earners and will shift a portion of the cost of teacher pensions to Maryland counties.
During the regular session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) pushed legislation to expand gambling to include Las Vegas-style table games at existing slots sites and an additional casino location in Prince George’s County. But the measure was not brought to a final vote in the House before the session adjourned.
Lawmakers opted to only consider budget matters last week and put off any gambling-related issues until a possible second special session.
On May 21, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced members of a work group that will meet next month to study a potential expansion of gambling in the state.
If consensus is reached, the group likely will propose legislation for a second special session to be convened July 9.
“This is a fresh opportunity,” Levy said. “I think what makes this more viable in terms of the session itself is that [gambling is] all they’re going to be considering.”
The restaurant, which holds a liquor license and pays property taxes in Charles County, currently offers off-track betting and Maryland Lottery games.
Colonial Beach featured offshore slot machines for a brief time in the 1950s, before Maryland banned such riverside gambling in 1958.
“If the issue is going to be gaming, I’m going to see if I can make Colonial Beach part of that discussion,” Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) said.
According to a company-funded study, the Colonial Beach casino would generate estimated annual revenue of $5 million for Charles County, which “just so happens” to be near the projected $5.5 million the county will need to pay annually toward teachers’ pensions by 2017, Jameson said.
“I firmly believe that our county is going to need that money and that our taxpayers would rather see it come from a gaming operation that really doesn’t affect our county rather than out of their own pockets,” she said.
The study also estimated that the casino would generate $46.5 million annually for the state, which could help address the $500 million structural deficit the state faces next year, Jameson said.
“The argument is Maryland needs more money. Here it is sitting on the table. Help us get you this money. Forty million can buy you a lot of government.” Levy said.
But in order to reach a consensus, lawmakers would need to be sure expanded gambling would benefit the state financially while mitigating any loss in revenue to planned casino sites in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County.
The study found that 91 percent of the customers at the Colonial Beach casino would come from outside of Maryland.
“The big argument that went on during the regular session, which was a justifiable concern, was how any new casinos would affect the existing casinos,” Levy said. “That’s what makes our proposal so unique — only  percent of the revenue would come from Maryland.”
Levy said investors will make their pitch for the Colonial Beach casino when the group holds its first meeting June 1. Additional meetings have been scheduled for June 12 and 20.
“I think we have a very strong case,” Levy said. “Normally you have to prove why you should do something, but I think with this it becomes so obvious that the question really becomes ‘why not?’”
Though nothing has been officially announced, some lawmakers already have resigned to being called back to Annapolis for a second special session.
“I think the plan is we will be called back on July 9,” Jameson said. “I think certainly there would have to be a deal almost worked out. If they’re going to call one, they’re going to know the outcome.”
She is concerned, however, that lawmakers may look to sneak other issues or pet projects into a second special session.
“I’m worried it has the potential to open a whole realm of issues to be discussed,” Jameson said. “I imagine there’s going to be a little bit of horse trading going on.”
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) also expects there to be a second special session, but is not pleased about the prospect.
“It was embarrassing to have the first one,” he said. “Very embarrassing to go back and waste taxpayers’ money.”
Wilson doesn’t have much confidence the Colonial Beach slots facility will get much consideration from the legislature, but he supports the project because it would be removed from county residents.
“I’m not a big slots person because of the impact, but we finally found a place where it’s not an impact to the community,” he said.
Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles), the only Charles County lawmaker to leave his name off the bill proposing the Colonial Beach casino, would prefer the legislature address any gambling issues during a regular session.
Three Charles County commissioners said that they are, on balance, opposed to the plan.
Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said they did not want to compete with the National Harbor development in order not to jeopardize the strengthening relationship between Charles and Prince George’s counties.
Kelly said she called Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) and came away from the conversation convinced to avoid the Colonial Beach plan.
“I think it’s really shortsighted. Just because a former commissioner [Levy] happens to have a client that he wants that for ... from my point of view as a commissioner, if we’re going to enter into the fray of gambling we need to do so in a way that Charles County is going to derive the economic development and tourism benefit,” Kelly said.
She and Robinson suggested permitting gambling at Aqua Land Marina in Newburg as an alternative that would lure visitors to the county.
Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said he feared the “regressive” nature of gambling, that it would likely take more money from the poor than the rich.
“The people impacted the most tend to be lower income residents, and so what happens is the lion’s share of those that are really building that fund are the people that least can afford to make that investment,” Collins said.
Murphy is also concerned about putting another issue up for a vote on the 2012 election ballot, which will already include a referendum on a bill authorizing in-state tuition rates for some illegal immigrants and could feature ballot questions regarding same-sex marriage and redistricting.
Expanded gambling requires a referendum.
Staff writer Erica Mitrano contributed to this report.