Frank Guthrie, historian of the Boonesboro American Legion Post 10, came with other Maryland legionnaires from Sharpsburg and Funkstown. Earl Austin Jr. of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8296 was with a group that drove all the way from Ocean City.
Traveling from towns all over the state, several hundred Maryland residents converged on the University of Maryland's Cole Field House in College Park yesterday to register opposition to state legislation that would limit charitable gambling. The Maryland House bill would permit organizations to hold gambling fund-raisers only 12 days a year -- they can hold them every day now if they want -- and would place a $100-a-game ceiling on bingo prizes. The limit now fluctuates from county to county.
"We probably have more gambling than any state except Nevada," said House Judiciary Chairman Joseph E. Owens, but he said it is unregulated and out of control.
The setting yesterday, in the cavernous 15,000-seat arena, was unprecedented for a General Assembly hearing, legislators said. But the crowd fell far short of the thousands expected by the Judiciary Committee as it took on gambling, regarded as one of the hottest issues in an otherwise largely lackluster legislative year.
A parade of nearly 100 witnesses testified almost solidly against the bill that one witness said "attacks the social structure of our state."
But the smaller-than-expected crowd lessened the impact opponents of the legislation had hoped for.
"I don't think it helps," said Bruce Bereano, a well-known lobbyist retained to battle the bill by a string of charitable organizations, including the Progress Club of Montgomery County and the Bladensburg and Clinton VFWs.
"I'm flabbergasted," Bereano said. "I walked in and I saw empty seats and empty seats. But the committee attendance is excellent."
The 22 panel members sat at one end of the basketball court in vinyl chairs emblazoned with "Terps." Owens (D-Montgomery) ruled that the hearing had to conclude by 6 p.m. to allow the University of Maryland basketball team to practice for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that begins Friday night.
Witnesses representing veteran groups, fraternal clubs and volunteer fire companies protested that their communities would suffer if gambling, their primary source of funds for charity, is curtailed. Many of the cap-wearing veterans sported signs urging defeat of the 49-page bill proposed by the influential Owens.
"We give to children," said Austin, the Ocean City veteran, who was leaning on a cane and carrying a placard that said "Oppose HB 1602." Gambling proceeds also are used to make mortgage payments on his VFW post's new building, he said.
The move to stiffen regulation comes after a year in which authorities have cracked down on gambling, from the Eastern Shore, where state police seized slot machines from clubs in five counties, west to Washington County, which was rocked by revelations that some fraternal clubs donated only 5 percent of their gambling proceeds to charity.
In Southern Maryland's Charles County, a number of residents, including the chairman of the county commissioners, were charged in connection with the operation of electronic poker gambling. In Montgomery County, the corporation that runs the exclusive Progress Club was tried on gambling charges, and in Prince George's, a commercial charity bingo operation stirred widespread opposition.
The rush of events, Owens said, prompted him to actively seek legislation that would bring uniformity to a currently fragmented state law, would determine the extent of gambling in the state and regulate it and would require organizations to file accurate reports on their proceeds and expenses. Yesterday's hearing was the first on the bill.