Legislators seek to pull plug on illicit gambling devices

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ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Lawmakers who say rogue gambling machines threaten the state lottery and slot machines they hope to legalize took their case to a Senate committee yesterday, but charitable organizations said the targeted machines are a big help to them.

Supporters say tens of millions of dollars in unregulated profits have been raised by underground businesses that install gambling machines made to resemble ones that have been allowed at charities in parts of the state.

“These machines are coming into our state under the guise of laws that permit charitable organizations and limited commercial operations to conduct bingo, instant bingo and tip jars,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who is supporting legislation to phase out the machines.

But Ann Seely, director of development for the Center for Children in Southern Maryland, said her organization has received about $25,000 from electronic pull tabs since January, money that helps the nonprofit serve about 3,500 neglected children a year. Miss Seely said that while she thinks regulation is needed, there would be no way to make up for the financial loss if such machines were banned.

“It’s been absolutely a godsend,” Miss Seely said. “It’s unencumbered money. It’s not like a grant that says you have to spend these five dollars on this. If we need to buy copy paper, if we need to pay the electric bill or the water bill, we can.”

She also said she thinks it is debatable whether or not the machines are illegal, as bill supporters contend.

The emergency measure would not effect charitable groups on the Eastern Shore that use gambling to raise money. The bill also would not affect paper pull tabs.

Other machines would be phased out over a one-year period starting July 1, depending on how long the machines have been in operation.

Gambling legislation has drawn big crowds for years in Annapolis, and this bill before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee was no exception.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles Democrat, who is sponsoring the bill, cited a 2006 report by the Abell Foundation that found underground video gambling raised between $91 million and $181 million a year.

A recent burst of growth, particularly in Southern Maryland, has lawmakers especially worried.

“Hundreds of these machines have been making their way into our counties in Southern Maryland alone,” Mr. Middleton said. “An influx of several hundred have appeared since early January.”

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s and Calvert Democrat, emphasized that the machines in St. Mary’s County are “totally illegal,” and only serve to enrich middlemen who leave charities with “a pittance” of the proceeds.

Gov. Martin O’Malley supports the legislation, his spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

“Marylanders will have an opportunity in November to have their voices heard on legalized gambling in our state,” Mr. Abbruzzese said.

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