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Local gaming law is envy of Frederick County

February 21, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Local gaming law is envy of Frederick County

Tip jar gaming has provided such an economic windfall for nonprofit groups in Washington County that it's enough to make some in Frederick County more than a little jealous.

"There is so much money that goes through those tip jars that could be of benefit to this community," said Susan Loveland, the president and CEO of United Way of Frederick County.

Unlike Washington County, Frederick County does not have a gaming commission that oversees gambling. The agency estimates it will distribute $1.86 million this year to Washington County charities, fire and rescue companies, and other nonprofit groups from tip jar proceeds.

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In Frederick County, gambling dollars are instead distributed through deals struck between individual taverns and charities - an arrangement critics say is primed for inconsistency and abuse. Fraternal clubs, which must make minimum charitable donations from tip jar gaming in Washington County, have no such requirement in Frederick County.

For many nonprofit groups in Frederick County, the view across South Mountain is filled with envy, Loveland said.

"They look over there (into Washington County) and say, 'That would be really nice,'" she said.

But while Washington County is moving to even further tighten its law, Frederick County is maintaining the status quo. In fact, past proposals to change the gambling law, which were ultimately unsuccessful, were aimed at loosening its reporting requirements and allowing tavern owners to keep a greater percentage of their gaming profits.

"We think it's too restrictive, and we think by loosening up we will have more of the tavern owners cooperating with this thing," said Frederick County Commissioners President Mark Hoke.

He argued that the reporting and paperwork requirements in the current law discourages people from selling tip jars - and actually hurt the charities it is intended to help.

"The juice ain't worth the squeeze to the people who are providing the service," Hoke said.

Ironically, it was the passage of the Frederick County gambling law in 1992 that was one of the factors in getting Washington County to begin thinking about regulating gambling, said Kathleen Hall, executive director of United Way of Washington County.

At the time the county had practically no legal oversight of tip jars, a politically charged issue that spurred much debate over the years but little action. That changed during the recession of the early 1990s, as many people started to wonder how much was being gambled and how that money could help a community hit hard by the economic downturn, Hall said.

She moderated a gaming task force whose recommendations became the basis of Washington County's first tip jar law in 1995.

"We were for accountability before it was cool, and that's the best part of it," Hall said.

The 1995 law, approved by the Maryland General Assembly, licensed and regulated tip jar gambling in Washington County. The following year significant amendments to the law were made that required for the first time that fraternal clubs like the Elks and Moose distribute a percentage of their gaming proceeds to charity.

A proposal in the General Assembly this year is intended to strengthen the law by funneling all mandated charity giving through the Gaming Commission and removing the clubs' use of "in-kind" donations, such as offering the use of room space to nonprofit groups as a replacement to some of their cash giving.

Charitable distributions from the Gaming Commission are estimated to jump to $2.45 million next year if the proposal passes.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who once favored the Frederick law to an early proposal for Washington County, said last week, "I think Washington County basically has a model law."

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, who has been one of the biggest supporters of tip jar reform in Washington County, said, "I think it's a tremendous model for the rest of the state."

But why isn't the model used in Frederick County?

Hecht said while the Washington County law has "way surpassed" the one in Frederick County, she sees very little support - be it coming from the County Commissioners or the nonprofit groups themselves - to place additional regulation on Frederick County gaming.

"It continues to surprise me, but I don't see the push locally," Hecht said.

Loveland, the Frederick County United Way official, said she sees the tide turning. She said the nonprofit leaders and others are starting to see inconsistencies in the Frederick County situation - how some charities and nonprofit groups benefit and others, like hers, receive nothing.

But like the effort in Washington County, she sees an evolution rather than a revolution.

"I think it's coming. I think it will come and it will come slowly," Loveland said.

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