With Slots in Mind, Lawmakers Target Gambling Machines

By Jenna Johnson and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 28, 2008

State lawmakers were poised to introduce emergency legislation yesterday to quickly outlaw electronic gambling devices across the state, stopping the rapid proliferation of slotlike machines in St. Mary's County and elsewhere.

Slot machines are illegal in Maryland. But video bingo machines, which look similar, have been deemed legal in St. Mary's County by the state's attorney, sheriff and an assistant attorney general because they are operated by nonprofit organizations.

The machine owners and venue providers can take a portion of the money collected to cover expenses. After a report in The Washington Post on Sunday, state auditors visited many sites this week to ensure that they are paying the requisite taxes and keeping proper paperwork.

There is no official count of the largely unregulated machines, Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron (R) said, but he has heard that there are nearly 1,000 machines in county bars, restaurants and liquor stores. This week deputies are canvassing the county and compiling a list of the number of machines at each venue, he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) condemned the machines Tuesday for generating money for private entrepreneurs with no state benefit. Miller said law enforcement officers need to eliminate the "counterfeit slot machines" that have "sprung up almost like a disease." Miller has been a leading proponent of legalizing slots in five locations, an issue voters will decide in a November referendum.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said that the machines' spread jeopardizes voter approval in that referendum.

"I think people will have such disgust with the proliferation of these slot machines popping up everywhere that they will vote no," Middleton said.

Middleton and Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard) said they would propose an emergency ban in both houses of the Maryland General Assembly yesterday. The measure would exempt non-electronic bingo and tip jars used by nonprofit organizations, if all proceeds go to charities. A violation would be punishable by up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000.

News of the legislation concerned some connected to the machines in St. Mary's County, and Middleton said he has been inundated by calls from lobbyists objecting to the emergency measures.

St. Mary's County Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said that while it's the job of state legislators to set laws, he thinks this legislation was written based on inaccurate information about how money from the machines is accounted for and split among nonprofit organizations, business owners and machine owners.

Mattingly said the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department, of which he is a longtime member, receives at least 30 percent of the money from the five machines it operates at Coles Point Tavern.

"People are saying the nonprofits are getting very little of the money," he said. "That's not true. They're getting a fair share."

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