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County gaming should be a model, not a target

November 06, 2005|By Tim Rowland

When the Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee meets Nov. 30 to discuss a potential state takeover of Washington County's tip jar gambling program, the case of the Community Free Clinic ought to give it pause.

In 2004, the clinic treated 11,213 lower-income people who sought treatment for everything from the flu to diabetes. Unable to afford traditional care, many of these patients have put off treatment to the point of being afflicted with multiple, chronic illnesses. This year, the clinic will treat 15,000 patients, the majority of whom work for a living, but have either exhausted their benefits or have none to begin with.

Were it not for the clinic, a substantial percentage of these people would end up in the already overcrowded hospital emergency room, where they would either be personally responsible for the bill, or Medicaid would pick up the tab - or more accurately, Maryland taxpayers would pick up the tab. Last year, the clinic also provided $1.8 million worth of medication, through an innovative program cobbled together through bulk purchases of older drugs and physician donations of samples given to them by pharmaceutical salesmen.

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Members of the House Ways and Means Committee, in charge of raising money for the state treasury, will need no reminders about the strain that medical costs place on the state budget, nor do they need any roadmap to show them how much money the Free Clinic is saving the state. Safe to say, it runs into the millions of dollars.

Keep in mind too, that the Free Clinic treats patients for a fraction of what the emergency room would charge for the same treatment. It costs the clinic $179 a year to treat a patient in four, quarterly visits that in emergency-room costs would run into the thousands of dollars.

A major funding engine for the clinic are the men and women who while away the hours pulling apart paper tips at local clubs and taverns. Last year, the tax on Washington County gambling paid one fifth of the clinic's $500,000 budget. Without the Gaming Commission, clinic director Robin Roberson says the operation would be hard-presssed to survive.

Last year, a bill was introduced to put the local gambling operation under the microscope, which, if passed, likely would have been the first step toward state control and state paws latching onto local dollars. Largely thanks to the efforts of Dels. Bob McKee and LeRoy Meyers, who are members of the committee, the bill was defeated.

But should momentum for a state takeover rekindle and succeed, it would spell the end for what is probably the Washington County delegation's most spectacular success of the past 25 years.

Of course it's not just the clinic that's benefited from the county's gambling law. Since the bill was passed a decade ago, $28 million has been funneled into organizations such as the Red Cross, Girls Inc. and scouting. It's provided food for the hungry, a roof for the homeless and recreation for kids who otherwise might be tempted to burn their energy in less wholesome pursuits.

And that's not to mention the 45 percent off the top that goes to fire and rescue agencies, without which, Washington County Commissioners by now likely would have been compelled to pass a countywide emergency-services tax.

Committee members need to understand the history of tip jar gambling in Washington County to truly appreciate the local law's effects.

Before the law came along, tip jars were a Wild West of anything-goes money changing. As approved by the legislature in 1980, 100 percent of the profits from tip jars were supposed to go to charity. But a Herald-Mail investigation in 1995 showed that a mere 5 percent was trickling into charitable hands.

The other 95 percent was a free-for-all. Money was disappearing off the ledgers in $100,000 chunks. One club had to install surveillance cameras over its cash register to discourage employees for reaching in for fistfuls of off-the-books cash. Clubs used tip jar profits to subsidize $3 steaks and 50 cent beers, seriously damaging the business of private restaurant and bar owners.

With so much money at stake, the law was not at all popular among the groups and individuals who stood to lose their place on this money-go-round. Once, legislation was flat out killed by special interests. Another time, tip jar purveyors pretended to support the bill, only to swoop in and kill it in the 11th hour.

It was no small amount of political danger local lawmakers placed themselves in to pass reform. Of that group, only Del. John Donoghue and Sen. Don Munson remain. Donoghue was at his best, helping to bring all sides to the table. And Munson, who regularly received campaign contributions from the clubs, showed considerable backbone when he threw his support behind the legislation because he knew it was the right thing to do.

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