A bill that would authorize Charles County commissioners to require owners of all coin-operated video or pinball machines to pay license fees has little chance of passing during the current legislative session, according to the head of the Southern Maryland delegation.
"It's basically a nuisance tax that would cost almost as much to enforce as the revenue it would generate for the county," said Del. Michael Sprague (D-St. Mary's, Calvert). "There's not a whole lot of sentiment to pass it. Video games are a dying industry."
Charles County commissioners pushed a similar bill last year, but it did not reach the floor for debate. County officials had hoped the current state crackdown on video poker machines and illegal slot machines would help the bill's chances this year. In the Washington area, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties require that the machines be licensed.
Statewide, businesses operating electronic games for profit must open a tax account with the state comptroller for submission of gross revenue figures. But it is impossible to know the total number of coin-operated machines or their locations statewide from these accounts, state officials said.
State officials do know, however, that such machines in Charles County grossed $1.17 million through July 1 and that the county received $26,540 in amusement taxes from them, the state comptroller's office said.
Machines are licensed in other localities to generate income and "to maintain a certain amount of control," said Robert Groff, head of licenses and inspection for Rockville. The city enacted a video license law in October.
The draft bill submitted recently to the Charles County delegation as part of the county's legislative "wish list" would require owners to pay between $10 and $50 a year for each machine.
"Right now we have no control over these machines. We don't even know where they are, exactly," said Mildred Jameson, supervisor of licensing for the county. "They are in bars, nightclubs, convenience stores, even the grocery stores. Normally, where you find the illegal gambling games you also find these."
There are at least five arcades and amusement centers in the Waldorf and Bryans Road areas of Charles County, some with more than 40 video games. Under the proposed law, a separate license would be required for each machine every year, Jameson said.
Jameson said her office has no way of estimating the number of video and pinball games in the county because arcades are not required to register with her office unless they are selling food or drinks on the premises.
"All we know is that we issued 175 liquor licenses, and most or all of those places have videos," she said.
Gross receipts from amusement machines in Prince George's County for the 12 months that ended in July totaled $9.4 million, from which the county got $613,609 in game amusement taxes, according to Marvin Bond of the state comptroller's office.
During the same period, gross receipts in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties totaled $4.6 million and $4.9 million, respectively, yielding $393,775 and $458,652 in taxes, Bond said.
"Revenues shot up like bullets three or four years ago with the video parlor boom. It was truly phenomenal. In the past 15 or 18 months we're seeing a fairly steep leveling off as their popularity declines," Bond said.
In Montgomery, where the job of licensing and enforcing video game laws falls on the health department, a spokesman said the law is a "nightmare to enforce."
"It's a real headache finding out who has these machines," said Reid McKee, head of Montgomery's licensing.