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Bill threatens $3 million for Washington County's nonprofits

November 02, 2007|By Brien Poffenberger

A bill has been introduced in the Special Session of the General Assembly that threatens to take authority over tip jar revenue away from Washington County.

House Bill 14(http://mlis.state.md.us/2007s1/billfile/hb0014.htm), sponsored by Del. Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, would repeal "the authority of Allegany County, Frederick County, Garrett County, and Washington County to regulate games that use tip jars; and specifying that the State Lottery Agency has the exclusive authority to operate games that use tip jars."

Rarely in politics are wins and losses so clearly defined, but with HB 14, Washington County stands to lose upwards of $3 million each year.

The Washington County government tightly controls tip jars and other local gaming, the result of prudent and fair-minded reforms in the mid-1990s.

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Since 1995, the county's gaming commission has distributed $35 million locally, half to fire and rescue services and half to area nonprofits.

A state grab of gaming revenue would amount to an unfunded mandate in reverse, but with the same result: Greater services demanded from local government. Without the gaming revenue and its equitable distribution in Washington County, local citizens would either have to turn to local government to make up the difference or do without. And doing without would not go unnoticed.

Every resident of Washington County benefits from the money collected and distributed from gaming revenue.

First, growth and changing demographics strain the ability of fire and rescue agencies to respond effectively. And yet by cobbling together resources, they protect every person working, living, or traveling through Washington County. Contributing nearly $1.5 million last year, gaming revenue is a big part of that equation. Second, the county gaming commission distributes another $1.5 million annually to groups active in sports, the arts, history, music, social services, leadership training and much, much more. Few corners of Washington County go untouched by local gaming revenue.

If deliberation and reasoned debate are obvious casualties of a special session, so too is the opportunity for citizens in Washington County to participate fully in the process. The special session's condensed calendar reduces a process that takes weeks in a regular session to just a few days.

HB 14 was introduced on Monday, and its hearing will be on Saturday - not the most convenient schedule for a constituency two hours away. Still, with the help of the Community Lobbying Coalition's firm in Annapolis, the Washington County Gaming Commission and our nonprofit community are voicing adamant opposition.

Despite the best efforts of local elected officials, our state delegation, and legions of volunteers, the community's work has done little to unlock the politics behind the legislation.

Targeting traditional gaming might seem like a political two-for-one. The bill promises to capture additional revenue for the state while reforming local gaming.

In fact, there is no evidence that this bill would do either. Del. Pendergrass told The Herald-Mail that her assumption (that local gaming competed with the lottery) was a "personal guess" with "no fact behind it." The legislation came as a surprise to lottery officials - the would-be gaming police - who have no position on the bill and show little enthusiasm for its passage.

Further, by targeting only the four western counties, the bill misses the mark on reform and suggests a disturbingly condescending view of Western Maryland.

Given the problems with gaming in the metropolitan areas and on the Eastern Shore, reform would have to look at the entire state. And any reform would surely identify Washington County's local control, process and distribution of gaming revenue as a model to be copied rather than a system to be scrapped in favor of state control.

Del. Pendergrass' attempt to enhance state revenue does little to address the structural deficit in Annapolis while literally taking medicine from the mouths of children in Washington County.

The bill might be some veiled attempt to influence the outcome of the special session, but the politics of such a strategy remain unclear. What is clear is the harm the legislation would do to our community.

Brien Poffenberger is the president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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