- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2008

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.

In November, lawmakers approved seeking a constitutional amendment to legalize slot-machine gambling. If voters approve, up to 15,000 slot machines would be permitted at five locations, including one location each in Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties, one in Baltimore city and one on state property at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort near Cumberland.

If approved, supporters say, the slot-machine revenue would be regulated and a big benefit to state coffers for education. The proposal also would create a fund for problem gamblers.

•••

You can poke fun at Elvis, but you can’t pretend to be a famous musician under a bill headed for approval in Maryland.

The Senate yesterday signed off on a bill safeguarding singers from impostor acts that claim to be the originals. The measure is aimed at doo-wop singers who say unscrupulous promoters have assembled sham acts claiming to be famous singing groups of the 1950s.

The Senate forwarded the bill but added an amendment to clarify that the bill won’t affect parody or satire acts. The bill already exempts tribute bands that make clear they are not original acts. But the senators said they worried the bill wouldn’t adequately protect parody acts, such as Elvis impersonators.

•••

New lawyers in Maryland could be paying a lot more to take the bar exam.

The Maryland Senate yesterday debated whether bar-exam fees should increase from $150 to $325 — or as high as $400. The proposal has sparked a fiery debate among lawmakers, many of whom are lawyers.

Some say bar-exam fees are too low and that the current fee doesn’t cover state expenses. They also say doctors pay a lot more than lawyers to cover licensing.

But some lawmakers insist young lawyers are fresh out of school and don’t have hundreds of dollars laying around to cover the higher costs.

The debate continues today in the Senate.

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