Maryland lawmakers find themselves in an unusual position as they enter the final hours of their annual session Monday, having resolved most of the high-priority issues before them, ranging from policing reform to pandemic financial aid.
Even the final major issue on the last day to-do list — setting up a sports gambling industry — appears to be resolved, coming down to just a matter of legislative formalities.
After the House of Delegates and state Senate backed different approaches for how many licenses should be issued for in-person and online betting, unofficial negotiations over the past couple of days yielded a compromise.
The final plan will feature in-person licenses for sports betting granted to casinos, the Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course thoroughbred racing tracks, and the stadiums for the Baltimore Orioles, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Football Team.
Up to 30 additional in-person betting licenses would be available for off-track betting facilities, the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium and large bingo halls. Businesses with fewer than 25 employees and less than $3 million in sales would pay less for their licenses than bigger operators.
Additionally, up to 60 licenses would be issued for mobile and online sports betting, which are highly desired because the bulk of sports betting in other states is via mobile apps, also known as “skins.”
“I think it’s very inclusive, transparent, and this was a collaborative effort with the House and all involved,” said Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who is among the champions of legalized sports betting.
One goal, Zucker said, is to get at least some of the business “up and running as soon as possible” — potentially by the fall NFL season, and definitely by the 2022 Super Bowl.
All companies would pay a tax of 15% of their sports betting revenues, with the money largely dedicated to public schools. The state is expected to take in about $20 million per year in such taxes.
Maryland voters overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of legal betting on sports during last fall’s general election, but the ballot question left the details up to state lawmakers.
In addition to resolving issues on sports betting legislation, lawmakers plan to work until late Monday in Annapolis, passing dozens and dozens of bills. Lawmakers will attempt to get some bills that are stuck in limbo moving and iron out disagreements over details between the House and Senate before the clock strikes midnight.
“The end of session is in sight,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told senators Saturday as they worked through a long floor session. “We know what the end looks like. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get there.”
But going into the final day, lawmakers already have attacked the priorities they set at the beginning of their 90-day session in January, including making substantial reforms to policing and finding ways to help Marylanders struggling in the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve passed bills aimed at improving the unemployment insurance system, making voting easier in future elections and adding tougher rules for emergency government contracts.
“We’ve cleared the desk of a lot of issues,” said Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, the House Democratic majority leader.
In addition to working out sports betting, Luedtke said, lawmakers will negotiate Monday on the final details of a bill that would set more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Lawmakers also will weigh legislation aimed at protecting immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission and helping tenants at risk of eviction.
Republican lawmakers will make last-ditch efforts to pass some of their priorities.
“All the major issues have almost been completed,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, the second-ranking Republican in the House.
She’s hopeful for some last-day attention to issues of low-performing schools in Baltimore City.
Republicans also are interested in reviving a bill that sets tougher penalties for certain gun crimes. The Violent Firearms Offender Act has the backing of GOP Gov. Larry Hogan and passed the Senate, but it has stalled in the House. Last year, the same bill passed the Senate but went nowhere in the House.
“My greatest concern that I hope could be addressed on the last day are some of the proposals that went forward that would address violent crime in the state,” said Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House minority leader. “This General Assembly has completely ignored one of the biggest problems that we have. ... It’s kind of malpractice for this legislature to continue to look the other way.”
For the past two years, lawmakers haven’t seen a frantic late-night push to pass bills followed by celebrations when a motion is made to adjourn “Sine Die,” a Latin term that roughly means “without day” and indicates the final adjournment of a session.
In 2020, lawmakers ended the session more than two weeks early amid rising tensions about the coronavirus spreading in the state. They made a final motion to adjourn at 5 p.m. March 18, 2020.
And in 2019, the last hour of the session was devoted to memorializing House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who had died the day before.
Even though spirits may be higher this year, there still won’t be balloons and confetti raining down on lawmakers from the observation balconies at midnight. There aren’t any student pages in Annapolis to drop them, one of the many changes this year due to the pandemic.