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The slots gamble

February 10, 2001|By LAURA ERNDE

The slots gamble



ANNAPOLIS - The "cha-ching" of one-arm bandits at Charles Town Races can be heard all the way to the Maryland State House, where members of the General Assembly are once again talking about legalizing slot machines.

Advocates argue the state should reclaim gambling profits being lost to nearby racetrack casinos in West Virginia and Delaware, while opponents worry about intangible costs such as crime and addiction.

In Washington County, where the gambling culture favors raffle-like tip jars, the debate takes on a new twist. Some wonder if slot machines will cut into tip jar profits, which bring in about $2 million a year for nonprofit organizations in the county.

The slot machine issue has resurfaced in Annapolis as the term of heavyweight opponent Gov. Parris Glendening comes closer to its end next year.

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Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced legislation Friday to put the issue to a statewide referendum.

Rawlings, D-Baltimore City, wants at least half the proceeds - as much as $300 million to $400 million a year - to be spent on education and public libraries in the state.

"Other than a tax increase, no other initiative will raise that level of additional funding for public education. Nothing is more important than the education of our children," Rawlings wrote in a letter to legislators.

Because it's a proposed constitutional amendment requiring approval of three-fifths of the legislature, Rawlings' proposal would not be subject to a gubernatorial veto.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has called slot machines in Maryland "inevitable," appointed a gambling committee that met for the first time Thursday.

"I get the impression it does sound like a train running down the track," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Tip jar impact

Munson, a slot machine foe, was appointed to the new Special Committee on Gaming that will review the flood of bills expected to be proposed in the coming years.

Munson and others believe that the nearly 2,000 slot machines at Charles Town have already taken a toll on the county's tip jar revenues.

Washington County Gaming Commission collections dropped about 20 percent in 2000, from approximately $1.4 million the first half of the year to $1.1 million the second half, said commission Chairman Curt Dudda.

The all-volunteer commission will distribute the $1.1 million to nonprofits Tuesday. The Washington County Fire and Rescue Association automatically gets half. The other half will be divided among local charities that requested a total of about $1.5 million, Dudda said.

Dudda isn't sure why tip jar revenue is off, or if it's the start of a trend. Revenues generally drop in the second half of the year, but not by that much.

"Maybe it's due to the economy; I don't know," he said.

Gaming Commission Director Vanessa Hines said she's still gathering the detailed reports needed to analyze the numbers.

The fraternal clubs that run tip jars speculate that more people are heading to Charles Town Races on the weekends, said Washington County Club Association President Jack Tritsch.

"That's what we figure is what's hurting us. That's money we don't get for meals, as well as jars," Tritsch said.

Gamblers spent $936 million at the racetrack during the last fiscal year, according to the West Virginia Lottery. Of the $79 million the track cleared after paying winners, $1.6 million was given to local governments.

Lou Thomas, owner of the Yellow House Tavern in Boonsboro and former member of the Gaming Commission, said there could be many explanations for the drop in tip jar revenues, including the weather or a cyclical drop. He hears his customers talk about heading to Charles Town for a night of entertainment.

If that's true, slot machines in Maryland would put an even bigger dent in tip jar revenues in the county, seriously hurting charities, Munson said.

"It may very well be the death knell for tip jars" in Washington County, he said.

While decisions on slots are likely to be a long way off, Munson said he will try to make sure that Washington County charities aren't harmed.

When the state ended horse racing in Hagerstown in 1970, it made payments to the Fairgrounds track for the next 10 to 15 years to compensate for the loss, he said.

Delegates opposed

Most members of the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly said they oppose slot machines on principle, although Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, and Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, are reserving judgment.

"I'm always willing to listen, but I don't know that slots would benefit our area," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

The proceeds certainly won't go to local charitable organizations such as Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, and volunteer fire departments.

Besides being worried about their effect on charitable gambling in Washington County, Munson has a philosophical problem with casinos.

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