County tells Md. -- Hands off our gaming

December 01, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Same song, second verse.

For the second time this year, Washington County gaming officials told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that the county's charitable gaming activities are regulated well enough, thank you very much, and further regulation by the state is unnecessary.

Committee Chairman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, invited representatives of the Washington County Gaming Office and from various service groups to brief the committee Wednesday on how charitable gaming activities are monitored.

Hixson had introduced a bill in the 2005 legislative session that would have put such regulation in the hands of the state comptroller's office.


That bill, House Bill 212, was strongly opposed by local gaming officials and service clubs in Washington County and elsewhere who feared a requirement to purchase state licenses to operate gaming activities would eat into the money that actually goes to charities. The bill died in committee.

While Hixson reiterated that currently there is no bill pending for the 2006 session, the fact that she asked for the briefing did little to allay their fears. And she didn't promise there wouldn't be a new bill in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.

"I am here today to oppose any form of state regulation of Washington County gaming ... Should a bill be introduced in the January 2006 session with the same language as House Bill 212, the reporting requirements of the bill will prove to be extremely hard to enforce and without a doubt have a negative impact" on local charities that benefit from gaming, said Jim Hovis, director of the county gaming office.

Hovis explained the office's reporting procedures to the committee and noted that since 1995, "there has been no reported incidence of corruption ... we run a very tight ship."

Fines for violations are hefty, Hovis said. First offenses for late reports or other infractions can cost an operator $1,500.

"These operators know that we're on top of things, and they know they're not gonna get away with anything," Hovis said.

He added that he had researched costs to states that do regulate charitable gaming and found that they range from $1.2 million in Connecticut to $2.5 million in Virginia.

The estimate for enforcement of House Bill 212 was $185,000 for the first year and $270,800 for the second, according to the Department of Legislative Services. Those projections seemed low, Hovis said, since the budget for the county office was $192,000 for fiscal year 2005.

Conversely, Hovis said that when states take over regulation of charitable gaming, each has experienced a decline in charitable gaming of 2 percent to 4 percent per year. Hovis attributed that decline to the additional costs to operators for obtaining state licenses and submitting state reports.

Washington County Commissioners President Greg Snook told the committee that in the 10 years that the local gambling regulation has been in place, the gaming office has distributed more than $28 million to nonprofit organizations.

"That is money that the county then does not have to contribute to these organizations," he said.

Nevertheless, Snook said that hasn't kept the county from making its own contributions.

"We have actually increased our contributions," he said.

This year, the gaming office "relieved the burden of over $3 million from state and local governments" by distributing gambling revenues to the county's nonprofits, Hovis said.

The committee also heard from representatives of the state sheriff's association that the association wants "to maintain local control" of charitable gaming, according to association President George Johnson, sheriff of Anne Arundel County.

Wicomico County's regulations are "thorough," Sheriff Hunter Nelms told the committee. "It doesn't cost the charitable gaming institution but $2 ... so the maximum amount is returned to the agency," he said. Further regulation, he said, "would drain money from the charities that have come to rely on it."

On behalf of the state's Elks Clubs, Washington County resident Les Fisher told the committee that most of the portion of gambling revenue that comes back to service clubs then is used for the clubs' own charities.

Asked after the meeting whether there would be a new bill in the 2006 session, Hixson said "there may be some tweaking." She also said any bill would be tied to slots legislation.

Del. Bob McKee, R-Washington, said Hixson had told him during the last session that if a bill to legalize slot machine gambling were passed, a bill to regulate charitable gaming would move as well.

"I don't see slots moving in this session," McKee told The Herald-Mail. "If we couldn't get it in the last three, I don't see how we could pass it in an election year."

The Herald-Mail Articles