Montgomery County veterans want slots at meeting halls

August 31, 2012

The General Assembly approved an expansion of gambling in the state earlier this month, but some Montgomery County veterans are concerned the bill didn’t go far enough.

An amendment to the legislation made late in the process allowed veterans organizations, such as American Legion posts, in some counties west of the Chesapeake Bay to operate up to five pull-tab instant lottery machines. Such organizations on the Eastern Shore can have up to five slot machines.

But Montgomery County was the only county west of the bay not included in the amendment, at the request of its House delegation, according to delegation Chairwoman Anne Kaiser (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville.

“We felt there was a need to take it up as local legislation and have a hearing back home in Rockville,” Kaiser said. Delegates concluded that the issue should be presented to county residents and officials first and may resurface when lawmakers reconvene in January, Kaiser said.

The pull-tab machines dispense a sort of instant lottery ticket. Some organizations already have such machines, but it’s not clear if and how they are regulated.

Montgomery County veterans groups believe they are missing out on gambling money.

“We strongly feel that having [slots] would be a wonderful source of revenue,” said Mark Stilwell, adjutant of American Legion Post 268 in Wheaton. “It would put us on par with those organizations on the Eastern Shore.”

Gail Murdock, who chairs the legion’s state legislative committee, estimates that revenue from five pull-tab machines could total as much as $30,000 per year per post.

The Wheaton post has one pull-tab machine but doesn’t feel it’s enough to draw members to the hall and spend their money. The post would like a full complement of pull-tab machines, but would prefer casino-style slot machines, Stilwell said.

The county has nine American Legion posts and four Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, according to the organizations’ Web sites.

Many veterans organizations are grappling with membership declines as the population ages, and a number of them, such as Post 268, have had trouble raising enough money to continue operating and making charitable donations, Stilwell said.

The Maryland American Legion Department currently has roughly 56,000 members, down from a peak of about 87,000 two decades ago.

Daniel Bullis, first vice president of American Legion Post 41 in Silver Spring, said a coalition of Montgomery veterans groups was planning to get together in early September to strategize for meetings with local lawmakers.

“I’m optimistic that we could use the time between now and [January] to meet with delegates,” Bullis said, adding that he hoped citizens and officials would understand that because they were nonprofit organizations, no one would be profiting from the machines.

Lawmakers from the county have been divided on the gambling issue, with 13 delegates and five senators supporting the expansion earlier this month and eight delegates and three senators voting against it.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he didn’t believe the council had ever discussed the issue and that they hadn’t taken a position. Ultimately, the county delegation to Annapolis would make the call, he said.

Slots have historically been a boon to Eastern Shore groups such as Wicomico American Legion Post 64 in Salisbury, which has had machines for more than 20 years.

Until recently, slots revenues have allowed the post to donate nearly $100,000 annually to causes in the community such as Toys for Tots, said Anthony Iwanski, who serves on the post’s finance committee.

While the post has raised enough to stay open, declining participation and competition from the state’s recently opened casinos in Cecil, Worcester and Anne Arundel counties have taken a bite out of gaming revenues and the resulting charitable donations, Iwanski said.

Commercial casinos in the state also have offered charitable contributions. Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Casino in Perryville, provides grants to local nonprofits in the areas where it operates, and in June, Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover donated more than $166,000 to organizations including the Anne Arundel Community College Foundation and the Baltimore Washington Medical Center.

Eastern Shore slots proceeds are split evenly between the posts and the charities they support. Only members and guests of each post can use the machines, Iwanski said.

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