The slot machine gambling debate that has monopolized political discourse in Annapolis for three years moved to Frederick County last night, as officials voted to ban slot machine gambling in the county.
But the Frederick Board of County Commissioners, with one member absent, failed to reach the supermajority of four votes necessary to enforce the provision within its 12 municipalities.
Despite pleas from fellow commissioners that failing to enforce the measure in all the municipalities would effectively make it possible for the city of Frederick to permit such gambling, Commissioner John R. Lovell Jr. (R) said he could not support an ordinance that would infringe on local autonomy.
After the General Assembly considered a bill in the spring that would have placed as many as 2,500 machines in Frederick County, the county board drafted a zoning ordinance that would prohibit use of the machines in the county and its municipalities.
Michael L. Cady, (R) the board's vice president, said allowing slot machines would be condoning a practice that hits the neediest families hardest. "I'm basically against funding government programs through what we call 'sin taxes,' " he said.
Bonnie Bailey-Baker, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Frederick County, reminded the board of the social ills visited on the state from organized crime, corruption, domestic violence and gambling addictions when some Maryland counties had legalized slots gambling. Those problems, she said, hit the poor the hardest.
"Gambling is a regressive means of raising revenue," she said.
Others said the board should not encroach on local rule.
Emmitsburg Mayor James Hoover said he would not want slots in his town, but he also urged the board not to impose its authority on the municipalities. "I hate to see the county start infringing on that," Hoover said.
But some speakers at a hearing last night urged the board to allow legalized gambling.
"Slots revenues could ease the tax burden at both the state and county levels," said Hugh Warner, 60, of Frederick.
Warner said that people would gamble anyway. Now, however, they leave the state to wager on machines in Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania.
On April 26, the board voted 4 to 0, with one abstention, to ask county staff to prepare a possible amendment to the county's zoning ordinance that would ban slots.
At a July 28 meeting of the Frederick County Council of Governments, representatives of five municipalities, including the city of Frederick, voted unanimously to oppose the countywide ban, arguing that each municipality should be able to decide its fate.
The county Planning Commission also advised against the measure.
"It's very much like a property rights issue," Lovell said. "It's their turf, and they should maybe be the ones to decide."
Efforts by Potomac developer William Rickman to lobby county officials convinced Commissioner Jan H. Gardner (D) that, given the chance, Rickman or other entrepreneurs would try to create new gambling venues in the county, most likely in the city of Frederick.
The defeat in the Democratic primary two weeks ago of Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, a slots opponent, also has made the outlook in the city uncertain.
Rickman, who owns Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore and Delaware Park in Wilmington and also has property near Frederick Municipal Airport, argued against the ban at last night's meeting. He said gambling is a heavily regulated business that has created jobs and tax revenue.
Gardner (D) said that although she is sensitive to the issue of local sovereignty, she also believes that everyone in the county would suffer the problems caused by slots if they were permitted in a locality.
"I think this is one of those rare exceptions where the county commissioners should use their authority to overrule the zoning authority of the municipal governments," Gardner said before the meeting.