Proposed statewide crackdown on electronic gaming could affect some Washington County tip-jar machines

February 28, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - Top lawmakers on Wednesday said they're pushing for a statewide legislative crackdown of electronic gaming, an effort that might affect a small percentage of tip-jar machines in Washington County.

The emergency bill is aimed at a proliferation of unregulated slot-style gambling machines, particularly in St. Mary's and Charles counties, said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, a sponsor.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert/Prince George's, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, also spoke strongly in favor of the effort.

Senate and House versions of the bill are being fast-tracked to committee hearings next week, lawmakers said.

While the bill wasn't aimed at Washington County, it is written broadly enough that the county would be affected, at least to a small degree.


After Washington County Gaming Director James B. Hovis read a copy of the bill faxed to him by The Herald-Mail, he said, "I see this bill as protecting the integrity of Washington County gaming."

He said that about 15 electronic machines in the county could be shut down, but they represent a small percentage of tip-jar gaming.

The machines dispense pre-printed tip-jar tickets. Hovis said the machines are a convenience for businesses that offer tip jars, but they could adjust without them and "it wouldn't be devastating."

The county has about 115 tip-jar operators, some of which use electronic dispensing machines, he said.

"I am absolutely, positively opposed to the bill," said Penny Pittman, an owner of Pittman's Liquor in Hancock, which has two electronic dispensing machines.

She said her business invested about $4,000 for each machine.

Pittman is chairwoman of the Washington County's Gaming Commission, but said she was speaking as a business owner.

The initiative somewhat mirrors a failed effort by Hovis to build an extra layer of protection against electronic gaming that uses computer-generated numbers.

However, noting that current county regulations already ban electronic slot-style tip-jar machines, the delegation voted 5-2 not to file the bill.

The new statewide effort revives the division that surfaced over the local bill.

"I think it is yet another attempt to harm gaming operations in the rural parts of the state," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

He said the state is "bullying out legitimate gaming operations that have been in existence for 30 years or more so they can have their exclusive monopoly with slot machines."

Maryland voters will decide this fall whether to legalize slot machines at selected sites.

Washington County's state-approved tip-jar system distributes gaming revenue among charitable nonprofit groups and fire and rescue companies.

Paper tip jars will not be affected by the bill.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, agreed that the new bill is an attempt for the state to clear out some of the competition for slot machines.

But Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a slots supporter, said the purpose actually is to get rid of machines that have cropped up throughout the state, including Allegany County, outside of the law. He signed on to the Senate version of the bill as a co-sponsor.

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for an Arbutus, Md., gaming supplier that does business in Washington County, said the proposed measure certainly would hurt the county, and he plans to round up charitable groups to lobby against it in Annapolis.

The county needs to think beyond the current paper tip-jar system, which, for a generation that likes video games, "is like the Model T Ford," Bereano said. "It's on its way out."

Munson was one of the two Washington County delegation members to vote three weeks ago in favor of the extra legal protection Hovis favored.

The other was Robert A. McKee, who since has resigned from the General Assembly.

As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which hears gambling-related legislation, McKee often watched out for attempts to cut into the county's tip-jar operation.

The new measure targets gambling on electronic slot machines, video poker, electronic bingo and electronic pull tabs.

Anne Arundel and Calvert counties are allowed to use instant bingo machines for charitable purposes. The trouble apparently took root after people saw them being used, causing bars and restaurants in Baltimore city and other counties to start setting them up, too, without authorization.

The measure will not target machines allowed on the Eastern Shore to raise money for nonprofit organizations, Miller said.

He said counties that "have played by the rules" will get a longer period of time to adapt.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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