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Washington County legislators say gaming bill's oversight is limited

Lawmakers are legally restricted in how much they could regulate budget reporting for tip-jar money

February 08, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

Some of Washington County’s state lawmakers said Thursday that they preferred proposing tighter financial oversight than a new gaming bill contains, but the law won’t allow it.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said legislators were legally limited in how much they could regulate budget reporting for tip-jar money that filters through the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association to individual fire and rescue companies.

The proposed bill requires the association to have its budget approved each year by the Washington County Board of Commissioners, but doesn’t address the individual companies.

However, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray has said the county already gets financial information from fire and rescue companies when the county distributes other money to them, a separate review from what’s outlined in the new gaming bill.

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The Washington County delegation voted Wednesday to submit the bill this legislative session after discussing it at four consecutive weekly delegation meetings. The new reporting requirement would go into effect if the bill passes the legislature and the governor signs it — often a formality for bills that only apply to one part of the state.

Before backing the bill on Wednesday, lawmakers agreed to one final tweak, removing a requirement that the association submit its budget to the county commissioners by May 15 of each year.

Serafini, the delegation chairman, said the county commissioners and association can work out a reporting timeline.

State and county officials have said the bill would build a new level of transparency into the county’s gaming law, in which half of tip-jar proceeds go to the association for distribution to member fire and rescue companies.

The other half of tip-jar proceeds goes to local nonprofit groups through a detailed application process.

A series of Herald-Mail stories has raised questions about how the association uses and distributes local tip-jar money and why it built up a reserve of more than $500,000 in various accounts.

The association has agreed to recent drafts of the bill, after making sure it didn’t include individual fire and rescue companies. The county commissioners also support the bill.

Striking a balance
Serafini and Myers took issue on Wednesday with the idea that the delegation didn’t go far enough in the bill.

“There are certain things that are called ‘the law’ that we can and can’t do,” Myers said.

A Herald-Mail editorial on Tuesday said that without “extending similar financial-reporting requirements to the companies themselves,” the delegation “has agreed that oversight of local gaming money is needed when it enters the hands of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, but not when it is passed on to the fire and rescue companies themselves.”

Serafini said the premise is untrue.

“We’ve gone as far as we can,” he said.

Financial reporting requirements are limited to the tip-jar money an organization gets, he said.

A bill can require the fire and rescue association, which gets almost all of its money from tip-jar proceeds, to share its budget, but the same demand can’t be made of individual companies, for which tip-jar proceeds make up only a small share of the budget, Serafini said.

“We can only govern, and we can only speak to the gaming fund ...,” he said. “We cannot dive down into the individual companies any more than what the gaming fund would be .... Where it might be 90 percent (for the association), it might be only 10 percent for them .... We don’t have the authority, nor should we be down into the individual company budgets. The county commissioners can already do that because of other funding (the county provides).”

Serafini said he and Sen.Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, verified that limitation with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday.

The association will be expected to be a fiscal watchdog over the spending of its member companies, Shank said.

“I think this strikes the right balance,” he said. “I think in order for it to work, there’s got to be a strong relationship between the association and the county commissioners, and an equally strong relationship amongst the association and its member companies.”

“We wanted to take this further,” Myers said. “We wanted more of a tighter regulation control .... for a highest level of accountability .... This is all we can do.”

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