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Gaming law has worked

make it last

February 15, 1997

For decades, tip jars have been Western Maryland's multi-million dollar secret.

But dating back to the Gold Rush and beyond, big money secrets in this nation are notably hard to keep. News this week that a metropolitan-area Senator is introducing legislation to ban tips probably means that Western Maryland's cat is out of the jar.

Club and tavern secretiveness over the true extent of tip jar revenues has had two effects, one bad, one good: On the down side, it's meant that only pennies on the dollar have gone to charity, where it was supposed to go. To the good, it's kept the state's grubby little paws off a tempting source of easy revenue.

The secret began to unravel in the early '90s, when a state police gambling expert told a legislative panel and about 200 onlookers that tip jar runners were making millions of dollars in Western Maryland.

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Immediately the press and civic activists began to ask, "If the clubs and taverns are making millions, why are charities only getting thousands?" Subsequent investigations and tracking legislation showed in Washington County alone $55 million is being gambled on tips a year, and clubs and taverns are grossing $10 million. Put another way, Washington County clubs and taverns alone gross twice as much as all the slot machines on the Eastern Shore put together.

Politically, these slots are pretty safe, because slot-operating clubs on the Eastern Shore give half their revenue to charity. Washington County's taverns give 50 percent, but the clubs, where the big tip-jar money is, are required to give far less.

The bill to outlaw tips and slots, sponsored by Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George's, will not pass. But the fact that a city senator like Lawlah even knows that tip jars exist is an ominous point.

More and more lawmakers from other parts of the state are learning about tips and the big money they bring in. While the Eastern Shore can defend its slots by pointing out half the money is for charity, our lawmakers can offer no such defense.

Don't think for a moment the state wouldn't move in and say to the clubs "If you're only giving 15 percent if the cash back to your community, certainly you can afford to give 30 percent to us." Even by doing little more than extending the sales tax to tips, the state would wind up with a tidy $3 million that I'm sure it would just love to put toward some alley cat-abatement program in Baltimore.

And it may be worse if Washington County lawmakers allow gambling law to expire, as it's going to do in 1999 without renewal. The sunset provision was to ensure the law would go away if it didn't work; but most everyone agrees that it has worked.

Lawmakers say there's no rush to make the law permanent - they have all of next session and the one after to make the law permanent.

But doing the job this year makes the most sense. Next year is an election year, when elected officials as a whole have a distaste for taking any sort of controversial action. Let me rephrase that. They have more of a distaste for doing anything controversial.

And to wait for the last year begs a crisis. In Annapolis, anything can happen and usually does.

Perhaps the delegation wants the law to expire. Perhaps they want the money to go into the hands of the gambling and liquor industry instead of to charity.

Increasingly that's what it looks like. Initially lawmakers said they couldn't submit a bill because the governor had threatened to veto any gambling legislation. But the governor recently made it quite clear his edict did not apply to tips.

Lawmakers then said the deadline is passed for filing bills. But the lawmakers know perfectly well those deadlines are theoretical. Bills submitted in March and April are routinely passed (one that comes to mind is the one our delegation voted for last year that saddled the City of Hagerstown with a $10 million pension debt).

Now the delegation agrees it may indeed be able to pass a bill. Dels. John Donoghue and Robert McKee have wisely indicated they could support lifting the sunset. Sen. Don Munson and Del. Bruce Poole say they would not.

"We need to force this to be reviewed on a regular basis," Poole said. That's not a totally bad notion. But Poole should be careful, in that he just might get what he wishes for.

Eliminating the sunset clause might create a little heat now, but it would give the lawmakers good reason the leave the law alone for at least several years. If they wait, the pressure from all sides will increase exponentially.

Already the clubs are lobbying the delegation, saying they are pained by the peanuts that have to give to charity under the bill. They want some of these peanuts back. And the volunteer fire companies are lobbying, saying they want the law restructured so they can take another 5 percent away from charity and keep it for themselves.

And by 1999 the state may be coming into play.

Big money inspires big greed. Big greed inspires big pressure. Lawmakers would be saving themselves a lot of pain and pressure - and would be putting the best interests of Washington County first - if they would repeal the sunset clause this session.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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