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Washington County fighting tip-jar measure

November 01, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Seeking money to help plug a state budget deficit, a Howard County, Md., delegate has zeroed in on Western Maryland's tip-jar operations.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat, has proposed a bill forcing Washington County and three other counties - Frederick, Allegany and Garrett - to relinquish local control of tip-jar gaming to the state.

Although Pendergrass said she's only looking for a revenue source, her proposal triggered a groundswell of protest in Washington County, which is protective of its tip-jar system.

James B. Hovis, the director of the county's gaming office, went to Annapolis to mobilize opposition to the bill.

Local nonprofit organizations that receive Washington County Gaming Commission grants have been asked to write letters and testify at a bill hearing Saturday at 10 a.m.

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Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, whose Ways & Means Committee will review the bill, said tip-jar gaming runs smoothly. "It's well regulated in our county," he said.

Proceeds are distributed to charitable organizations and volunteer fire and rescue companies.

Pendergrass' bill would give the State Lottery Agency "the exclusive authority to operate" tip jars, a popular paper form of gambling.

"I'm looking for ways to fill a budget hole," she said, noting that she also filed a bill to start taxing cheese puffs, pork rinds and other snack foods.

"It's not that I'm going after Washington County and it's not that I'm going after potato-chip makers," she said.

Pendergrass said the Lottery Agency should control lottery tickets and tip-jar gaming because they seem to compete with each other.

"It's just a personal guess," she said. "There's no fact behind it."

With the state facing a budget deficit most recently estimated at $1.5 billion, according to The Associated Press, Gov. Martin O'Malley assembled a $2 billion tax-and-slots package, the basis for the current special session.

Some lawmakers have put forth ideas for other taxes or revenues. For example, at least three bills propose raising liquor, wine and beer taxes.

Whether to legalize slots is a hot topic. O'Malley, a Democrat, has proposed a referendum, giving voters a chance to decide in November 2008.

State lawmakers have filed their own slots bills. At least one bill proposes table games, too.

Hovis said he is monitoring two other gambling bills.

One, proposed by Del. Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, is a task force to study the state's gambling.

The House passed the same bill during this year's regular session after it was amended to put Hovis on the task force. The bill died in the Senate.

Hovis said he's also trying to change a provision in O'Malley's slots referendum bill that could jeopardize for-profit entities' tip-jar operations.

County officials hurried into action Tuesday, when Hovis and Brien J. Poffenberger, the president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, told the county commissioners about the tip-jar bill.

In a letter to Ways & Means Committee members, Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said the county's Gaming Commission has distributed almost $35 million to charitable organizations since 1995, at no cost to the state or taxpayers.

If tip-jar money is taken over by the state, the burden for helping charities would fall to local governments, said Poffenberger, a point person for the lobbying coalition that includes the county and city governments, as well as business interests.

The coalition has a lobbyist working on its behalf in Annapolis.

McKee wondered why Pendergrass targeted tip jars.

He said he plans to draft an amendment today shifting all nonprofit gaming in the state, including bingo, to the Lottery Agency. He said he'll see how the tip-jar bill fares before deciding whether to pursue the amendment.

On the Web: http://mlis.state.md.us/2007s1/billfile/hb0014.htm

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