Job 1 for delegation: Keep the state away from charity funding

February 20, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Jefferson County (W.Va.) Commissioner Jim Surkamp has only been in office for a few weeks, but already he has sensed this inevitable truth: Money is to a state lawmaker what a nightcrawler is to a bass.

Keep too much of it in a pile, and sooner or - no, just sooner - someone in state office is going to want it.

In Jefferson County, slot machines have created an unlikely problem for local government: Too much cash, or at least the perception of too much cash. Jefferson has stashed some $13 million in the bank with ideas of spending it down the road, perhaps on new county offices.

Surkamp's message is that the county ought to spend it now on projects most beneficial to the county, before state buzzards begin circling. "...(T)he state's elected officials are licking their chops to get more money from video lottery funds," he wrote in an e-mail this week. "They could easily and effectively misconstrue the fact that so much of our allocation still sits in the bank to mean that Jefferson County doesn't need video lottery money as much" as the state does.


Good point. Certainly the local horsemen wouldn't argue, having just seen their accounts raided by the state to the tune of $4.6 million. Many people may not remember, but the ostensible purpose of legalizing slots was to shore up the flagging horse racing industry, which dates back to the Washington boys charging their steeds up and down the dirt streets of Charles Town.

Note that the state is not fussy about such details. It didn't take a greater share from the slot owners, it took from the group that the slots are supposed to support.

And here in Washington County, it's unlikely the state of Maryland will be fussy about trampling our local charities and fire/rescue companies if it decides it wants to get its mitts on local tip jar revenues.

The state will see that Washington County has a cut out a nice little gaming industry that makes money, so forget the needy and the disabled and the abused and the kids and the elderly that it benefits - the state may want the cash instead, so it can put it to really good use, like building its new, velvety carpeted House of Delegates executive office suites.

Any lawmaker with a soul would reject this gutting and filleting of local charities out of hand. Those who don't ought to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and planted down in our local shelters and youth groups and be forced to look the needy in the eye and say "I am sorry, but I have to strip you of your meager assistance, because I am a money pig."

The local delegation cannot let this happen. And don't believe for a second any protests of "This is bigger than us" or "This is beyond our control." Pooh. They're just being too modest.

This job is made all the easier by the fact that the delegation has reason on its side. First of all, tip jar gambling sounds more lucrative than it is. Unlike most games of chance, tip jars have a relatively high payout rate. So even if $75 million is gambled in a year, there's only about $12 million in profits.

That would be chump change to the state, but is crucial to local agencies, most of which operate on a shoestring.

Second, the money spent locally saves the state money that it would otherwise have to spend. For example, people who get treatment at the Community Free Clinic might otherwise fail to get any treatment at all and eventually end up in costly state medical programs.

Kids who would otherwise have no access to after-school computers can go to places like Girls Inc. to do their homework and polish their technological skills. These children will go on to become more productive workers and, in the eyes of the beancounters, better taxpayers.

Had the state wanted to step in 15 years ago and "nationalize" tip jar gambling, it might have made more sense. At that time, only tiny percentages of gambling profits were finding their way to charity - which is where the money was supposed to be going all along.

But the Washington County delegation wrote what is arguably the best piece of local legislation of the past two decades to see that the money got to where it was supposed to go. We recognized a problem and fixed it; we kept our own house.

For the state to step in and make a shambles of this hard-won framework, it amounts to punishment for doing the right thing. If the state takes a cut from emergency services and the charities it is a pure atrocity. If the state takes a deeper cut from the establishments that sell tip jars, it could slaughter the goose.

Some veterans clubs in particular, their memberships in decline, need the revenue to make ends meet. One more hit could be their last.

Instead of destroying it, the state of Maryland ought to be parading Washington County's system around the state as a model of how gaming can best serve local people.

Lawmakers in Montgomery County would correctly scream bloody murder if the state tried to take a slice of their local impact fees. So would lawmakers who represent Ocean City if the state tried to take a share of the local hotel tax.

Tip jar money is raised locally and spent locally. And it's spent, efficiently, on good things, with next to no administrative or bureaucratic costs. Our meager few million dollars makes a palpable difference here - children are cared for, the hungry are fed and the volunteers can concentrate more on emergencies than on fund-raisers. Keeping it here is a fight the delegation needs to take personally.

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