- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — As the debate over legal slot machines rages in the General Assembly, several hundred of those machines on the Eastern Shore have been raking in cash and customers for years. In fact, the Ehrlich administration yesterday cited the machines as proof that slots can be used responsibly.

“The fact that these machines have thrived in those communities for 17 years indicates that adult Marylanders can spend their discretionary money in a responsible way,” said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican.

Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties have been granting licenses to charities for an estimated 250 slot machines since 1987. Two other counties grant licenses for “tip jar” gambling, in which customers try to buy winning tickets from a jar.

“Gambling is already in the state in a variety of forms,” said Mr. Fawell, who believes the success of the machines on the Eastern Shore is a “clear case study that slots can be enjoyed and regulated.”

The disclosure by Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow that slot machines are operating legally in eight Maryland counties was a surprise to many who attended a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing last week.

Mr. Roogow said the success on the Eastern Shore should encourage lawmakers to support Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to use revenue from a proposed 15,500 slot machines at horse tracks and in at least two off-track sites to help pay for public education needs.

Mr. Ehrlich’s original plan last year to put about 11,500 machines at four tracks — Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County, Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore and a proposed track in Allegany County — passed the Senate but was killed in the House Ways and Means Committee.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the Ehrlich plan gave too much money to track owners and that he preferred to increase the state sales tax by one cent on the dollar to help reduce the state’s budget shortfall and pay for education and other programs.

Church leaders also have expressed concerns about slots, particularly about how they might affect families.

However, Capt. George Ball of the Talbot County Sheriff’s Department said the slot machines licensed to religious groups and other private organizations are “beneficial … because they donate 50 percent of their proceeds to charity.” The machines are regulated by county sheriff’s departments.

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed a bill to legalize slot machines in 1985, but the legislation was vetoed by Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Democrat.

Critics of the bill said the charities wanted to use proceeds from the machines only to reduce food and beverage expenses for club members.

Slot machines were made legal for charities in 1987 with the signature of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, but only for counties on the Eastern Shore and not including Worcester County.

The law allows fraternal, religious and war veterans’ organizations to have no more than five machines each with half of the money going to charity and the other half to organization costs.

Paul Dorsey, director of policy development for the Maryland Lottery, said it is not known how much money the slot machines are generating because the charities are not required to divulge their figures.

The most slot machines are in Wicomico County, which has 13 sites with 65 machines. Caroline County has the fewest, with 20 slots at four sites, he said.

A lottery spokesman said local, state or federal agencies could deal with illegal gambling and that he had no information about which agency keeps records on such information as the number of arrests or money confiscated.

Mr. Ehrlich has said the machines are needed to fund the Thornton Education Act, enacted to help reduce the disparity between rich and poor public school systems.

Allegany County uses most of its proceeds from tip-jar wagers to pay for education, with other proceeds going to fire and rescue crews.

The plan began Nov. 17 and is patterned after Washington County, which has used gambling revenue for charities and fire and rescue since 1995.

“I never have heard of any violence over it,” said Dan DiVito, director of the Washington County Gaming Office, which has jackpots up to $500.

He also said the gambling provided the county with $11 million last year.

“We are not talking about guys who will spend thousands of dollars,” Mr. DiVito said. “That just doesn’t happen. It is more of a social thing.”

David Nedved, Allegany County gaming administrator, who hopes to make as much as $50,000 a month in new revenue for the county, agreed.

“Personally, I think gambling is like anything else,” he said. “I just think it must be done in moderation.”

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