While everyone else in Annapolis is preoccupied with slots, Steve Novak is focused on poker, blackjack, baccarat and roulette.
Novak, president of Crescent Cities Jaycees Foundation, is working with volunteer firefighters and other nonprofit groups to get legislators to sign onto a bill that will once again allow charities to operate casinos in Prince George's County.
So far, they haven't had much success.
But Novak, who considers himself David in a fight against a giant, continues to set up meetings with lawmakers and attend hearings.
A subcommittee of the county delegation will decide today whether to press forward with the measure or kill it.
With a new governor and all the talk about slots, Novak said he figured this was a good time to bring back the games that helped their charities raise money that paid for needs as varied as firetrucks and free lunches for senior citizens.
"All we want is the opportunity to do it again," Novak said, noting that the Jaycees used $1.35 million in casino proceeds to purchase the former Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale and convert it into a 140-bed nursing home. "If they are going to bring slots to the state, to Prince George's County, why can't charities have an opportunity to support the community?"
After 19 years of charity casino gambling in Prince George's County, at the insistence of then-governor Parris N. Glendening (D), the state shut down the operations six years ago.
State law authorized charity casino gambling in Prince George's County through May 1997. Glendening, an opponent of the games, vowed to veto any bill that would extend authorization any longer.
Glendening targeted his home county because he said at the time that they were different from the other charitable gambling operations in the state. Players at some of the casinos could wager more than $100 on a blackjack hand. Prince George's casinos were operations that raked in more than $25 million a year. That was far from the small community-based operations Glendening said they were intended to be.
"We were penalized because of some greedy operators," Novak said. "It was unfortunate that some abused the privilege. But the reaction is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
The Crescent Cities Jaycees has gone from bringing in an average of $2 million in charity casino gambling to $70,000 a year by running bingos, which are still allowed.
Novak's argument apparently isn't too convincing to some lawmakers who remember the lack of oversight, the charges of embezzling at some casinos and the failure to pay taxes at others.
Del. Melony Ghee Griffith (D-Suitland) said that Novak met with her. She told him that until the debate over slots is settled, she couldn't take a position on charitable gaming.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) wants 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks in Maryland to help raise money to cover the two-year $1.8 billion deficit. Under his plan, Prince George's would feel the biggest brunt, becoming home to one racetrack with 3,500 slots and neighbor to another track with 3,500 machines.
"Slots and reinstituting charitable gambling -- it would be a bit much," Griffith said. "I told him I had to reserve taking a position on the bill."
Rep. Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), who sponsored the legislation for the Jaycees, said that the bill has been at a standstill because some lawmakers are reluctant to approve the bill because they think the two gaming options might compete with each other.
Novak said the legislation that was drafted should address any concerns lawmakers might have about restarting the games. Under the bill, Prince George's County would be allowed to issue permits to eligible nonprofits to conduct gaming events. The agencies must be based in the county for two years to obtain a permit. The county would receive 10 percent of the proceeds for taxes.
The charities in Prince George's can run bingos, tip jars, raffles, bazaars and card parties without cash prizes. In Charles County they can run games with cash prizes -- such as poker and blackjack -- that the charities in Prince George's are seeking to reinstate. At least a dozen counties in Maryland allow some form of charitable gambling with cash prizes.
Timothy Polle, president of the Waldorf Jaycees, said his organization runs roulette, poker and blackjack one weekend a month at its community center. County regulations limit the games to one weekend a month. The Jaycees take in anywhere from a couple of thousand to $13,000 over the two days. "It's really the major fundraiser for our organization, funding half of what we do," Polle said. "Without it, we'd be devastated."