- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The plan was to allow a large casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County and to add table games to the five existing or authorized slot machine parlors in Maryland.
The National Harbor venue would have been the closest casino to Charles County, but the plan all fell apart last week at least for now.
To the surprise of many, the 11-member Workgroup to Consider Gaming Expansion failed to reach consensus. The hang-up came when three state delegates would not back a proposed decrease in the state’s tax rate on slot machines as a trade-off for adding a venue. That means there likely will be no special session of the legislature next month to take up expanded gambling.
What was at stake was a major expansion of the state’s gambling operations. The work group’s efforts were seriously tainted by the decision to meet last week behind closed doors.
After the work group’s chairman, John Morton III, announced the closed meeting, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s) asked the attorney general’s office for an opinion on whether it was legally permissible for the private meeting to take place. With the final public meeting of the work group scheduled for two days later, and because discussions concerning gambling can become heated, Morton said, “It’s probably better that those debates be held in a forum where people can really be very open and candid about their feelings.”
Dan Friedman, the attorney general’s counsel to the General Assembly, responded to Pipkin that the work group is not subject to the state’s open meetings law because it was not considered a “public body.” For the work group to have been a public body, one of seven methods would have had to create it: the Maryland Constitution; a state statute; a county or municipal charter; an ordinance; a rule, resolution or bylaw; an executive order of the governor; or an executive order of the chief executive authority of a political subdivision of the state. It also could have been deemed a public body if more than one member was not an employee of the state.
Well, the work group was established by Gov. Martin O’Malley and General Assembly leaders by statute, not by executive order. And, Morton was the group’s only member not employed by the state. Therefore, the panel wasn’t technically a public body.
Pipkin rightly said in reaction, “While the closed-door policy of the 11-member task force does not violate the letter of the law, it most certainly violates the spirit of the law.”
If the pros and cons of expanded gambling warranted an honest discussion, that debate should have been held in public view. After all, the results of the work group would be “crafting policy,” as Pipkin maintained. While it’s true, as Friedman noted, that expanded gaming still required two “very public” steps passage of a bill by the General Assembly and approval by the voters at referendum it’s also true that the thinking that led to the outcome of the work group’s efforts was a big part of the process.
It’s too late to do anything about the two closed sessions, but in the future “work groups” of this sort must keep the public foremost in mind and their dealings and decision-making as transparent as possible.