Maryland's gambling special session begins

A protester demonstrates on the first day of the special session. (Photo: Btrianne Carter)

The contentious issue of expanding gambling and opening a 6th casino in Maryland rose to the surface again Thursday, when the Maryland legislature gathered to open a special session on the topic.

Maryland lawmakers are gathering in Annapolis for the special session to take up new gambling legislation that would allow table games and a casino at the National Harbor in Prince George's County.

On Thursday, a senate panel approved the bill. The full senate will take the first of two votes on the issue Friday.

The new casino near the nation's capital would be open to competitive bidding. It could not open until 2016.

Few other issues have stirred as much passion in the Old Line State as gambling has, as supporters and protesters alike gathered in the state's capital to voice their opinions. That includes Kamita Gray, who was among a group who jeered Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, a staunch casino advocate, as he walked past them Thursday.

"It's back door deals being made, and that's not fair to the residents of Prince George's County," she said.

But Miller, along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, both say that the revised gambling legislation would bring much needed revenue and jobs to the state.

"It's all about putting it on a referendum and letting the people decide," Miller said. "Who cares who's standing out here?"

The legislation would also grant a slight tax decrease to casino operators to make up for the losses from increased competition; a compromise O'Malley says will benefit everyone.

"This would allow us to create jobs," O'Malley said. "It would also make gaming in our state competitive."

Easy approval in the Senate is expected for the new legislation, but opposition from operators of the state's five existing casinos, especially the new Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, has made passage in the House of Delegates a major question.