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Other counties looking for piece of gaming action

February 27, 2005|BY TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

If there were no risk, it wouldn't be gambling.

After 10 years and distribution of nearly $25 million to local fire and rescue companies and charities, Washington County officials were convinced that their methods for regulating charitable gambling activities were a pretty sure bet.

The Washington County Gaming Commission distributed $1.4 million to the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association and $1.4 million to charitable or nonprofit organizations, according to a report by Commission Director James B. Hovis. The money was raised through tip jar sales.

But this week, state legislators will conduct a hearing on a proposal to take oversight of such activity away from county officials and place it in the hands of the state comptroller.

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The risk in that, many fear, could be that money collected locally would be siphoned out of Washington County - and away from local charities.

Sponsored by several members of the House Ways and Means Committee, the bill would require the comptroller to collect information on the nature of organizations permitted to conduct gaming activities and to determine whether the net proceeds are in fact used for charitable purposes.

The comptroller would have to submit yearly reports to both the governor and the General Assembly.

The bill would apply to games of chance such as bingo, punchboards, raffles, wheels of chance and tip jars.

And here's a potential local rub - any county or municipal authority that conflicts with the bill's reporting requirements would be pre-emptied.

Washington County legislators suspect the sponsors of the bill, all of whom represent Montgomery or Prince George's counties, drafted it as a first step toward requiring gaming revenue to be distributed throughout the state.

The county was granted authority to regulate charitable gaming in 1995. Since then, "we have had to modify the law and bring people down here to testify" before the Ways and Means Committee, Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, explained to members of the Greater Hagerstown Committee last week.

"When they heard the dollars that were being raised in Washington County, their eyes widened," Myers said. "I think they want some of Washington County's money."

Myers serves on the Ways and Means Committee, as does Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington. McKee said they plan to sit down with the bill's lead sponsor, committee Chairman Sheila Hixson, "to determine how serious she is about this legislation." McKee said Hixson had filed similar legislation before.

McKee said Friday that he and Myers had been unable to speak with Hixson about the bill; her attention for the past few weeks has been focused on legislation to allow slot machine gambling in the state. The House approved that bill Friday afternoon.

While Myers opposes gambling in general - he voted against the slots bill Friday - "if there is gambling, I want it regulated," he said. In Washington County, Myers added, "they've done a good job of monitoring it."

His message to his fellow committee members was pointed.

"They better watch what they're trying to do," he said. "What kind of a Pandora's box are they opening here?"

While Hixson had not returned messages from The Herald-Mail late Friday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he supported the bill.

"I think they do need to be regulated," he said. "With the technology we now have, I think we need to make sure the money is going where it should go and to protect against fraud."

The fact that Washington County officials had had to modify its own regulations demonstrated the need for state oversight, he said.

Busch would not deny that the bill's sponsors were trying to get a piece of Washington County's gaming proceeds, adding that local officials "didn't seem to mind" accepting money wagered in other Maryland locations - including those that would be eligible for slot machine gambling in the House bill approved Friday. Every Washington County delegate except Myers voted for the slots bill.

But if Myers doesn't like gambling, he also doesn't like interference.

"Let Montgomery County start their own," he said. "If they think tip jar gambling is such a great deal, they can copy the model."

The bill is among several gambling bills scheduled for hearings before the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

In the meantime, Myers said he and McKee still hope to meet with Hixson to "find out the real purpose of the bill. It could be just a trial flag."

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