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End is near for tip-jar measure in Washington County

November 07, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

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mlis.state.md.us/2007s1/billfile/hb0014.htm

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A bill proposing that the state take over Washington County's tip-jar gaming probably will die in committee, the committee chairwoman said Tuesday.

"I think it will be on hold," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, who chairs Maryland's House Ways & Means Committee.

Asked if the committee would vote on Del. Shane Pendergrass' bill during the current special session, Hixson said, "I do not think so at this time."

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"That's their choice," said Pendergrass, D-Howard, who sponsored the bill aimed at tip-jar gaming in Washington, Frederick, Allegany and Garrett counties.

Pendergrass reiterated that the bill was meant only to find revenue to help the state out of a budget deficit.

Washington County leaders responded to the bill forcefully. They rallied local opposition and organized a campaign of letters and faxes.

At a bill hearing in Annapolis on Saturday, most of the two dozen or so people who spoke against the bill were from Washington County.

County officials have said the tip-jar system has distributed almost $35 million to charitable organizations since 1995. Nonprofit groups and the county's fire and rescue companies have come to rely on the revenue, officials have said.

An analysis attached to the bill says Washington County expects its charities and other nonprofit groups to lose about $3 million a year if the bill passes.

Gambling has been a prominent issue during the special session, with Gov. Martin O'Malley pushing for a statewide referendum on legalizing slot machines.

Pendergrass said Tuesday that she reacted to O'Malley's effort to plug a budget deficit most recently estimated at $1.5 billion.

She said she didn't like O'Malley's idea to apply the state sales tax to health clubs, calling it counterintuitive to promoting healthy living.

Pendergrass has proposed taxing snack food.

Looking for another source of money, she picked tip jars, which, she surmised, compete for state lottery dollars.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, a tip-jar system defender, has challenged Pendergrass on why she didn't look broadly at the state's charitable gaming.

"Because of the (special session's) short time frame, I looked at things that were visible," Pendergrass answered in a phone interview on Tuesday.

She said her answer to McKee's question of how volunteer fire companies would make up for lost revenue is a fire tax.

Pendergrass said she won't push the bill further if it doesn't pass now. "I don't have a plan to introduce it during the regular session," she said.

Hixson said she considers Washington County's tip-jar system a statewide model.

County leaders were glad to hear on Tuesday that the bill's chances dropped close to zero.

"It's certainly good news," said Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval, who testified at Saturday's hearing.

Kercheval said the sense in Annapolis has been that peripheral, controversial bills such as Pendergrass' would be set aside as the General Assembly focuses on O'Malley's tax-and-slots package.

"I'm extremely pleased," said James B. Hovis, the director of the county's gaming office, who also testified against the bill and is monitoring a separate bill on a statewide gaming task force.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a Republican who chairs Washington County's General Assembly delegation, said Pendergrass' bill illustrates how outsiders have tried to grab the county's tip-jar revenues.

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