State may get piece of tip jar pie

February 22, 1997


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Millions of dollars changing hands, and not a dime of it taxed by the state.

That could be the engine behind an issue that many in Washington County would rather not consider, but some are already conceding: state regulation of local tip jar gambling.

"I think it's feasible because I think the gambling industry is too lucrative for the state to pass up a piece of the pie," said Sue Tuckwell, chairwoman of the Washington County Gaming Commission. "So I think it's inevitable.''

Her sentiments are echoed by some local lawmakers, who speak of state control of gaming as a real possibility - if not this year, then in the not-too-distant future.


"It could certainly happen, and I've had that concern for a number of years," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

The issue took on greater importance last week when legislation was introduced to create a statewide gambling commission to regulate and monitor nearly all forms of gambling, including tip jars.

The bill, sponsored Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, who chairs the powerful Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, would allow the state to license gaming and enforce regulations.

But perhaps most importantly, it would have the new commission look into the possibility of a state takeover of local gambling. The new rules would preempt laws like the one that currently regulates tip jars in the county.

Millions of dollars in tip jar proceeds from county bars, fraternal clubs and fire companies that now go directly to local charities and nonprofit groups would be funneled through the state instead.

"Sure it's a concern." said Lou Thomas, a member of both the Gaming Commission and the Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association. "I've been afraid of that for a long time because the money is going to be locally raised and then fund projects in Baltimore.''

While Thomas believes that the state isn't about to jump right in, he said the chance is there, and the result will only hurt the charities.

"It would be a horror show,'' Thomas said. "I would hate to see the state get involved."

State involvement could have significantly hurt county fire and rescue companies, which use tens of thousands of dollars in tip jar proceeds each year to remain financially afloat, said Jay Grimes, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

"Yes, we think about it all the time and we're concerned about it all the time," Grimes said.

What has some local lawmakers convinced that state control is eventually coming is the amount of money gambled in the county on tip jars - $55 million last year, according to the Gaming Commission. That kind of profit could widen the eyes of lawmakers hungry for a new source of tax revenue.

"It's just a matter of time," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a legislative panel that reviews tax proposals.

Also, some of the statewide political clout that has kept charitable gambling a local domain is starting erode.

Most notable is the scheduled abolishment this year of the popular casino nights in Prince George's County.

As a result, Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George's, has introduced legislation to also abolish almost all forms of gambling in the state, including tip jars. She said that would ensure that all parts of the state have consistent gambling regulations.

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, isn't convinced that state regulation is inevitable. He believes the efforts made local to regulate gaming - the result of two pieces of legislation passed during each of the past two General Assembly sessions - show the state there is no need for controls from beyond the county's borders.

"I'm very hopeful that we did the right thing at the right time, and they'll go after the people who didn't do anything," he said.

"But anything is possible in government," he added.

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