ANNAPOLIS – Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of this year’s General Assembly session was the death of a bill that would have added Worcester County to the list of shore counties that permit slot machines in non-profit veterans organizations, service clubs and fraternal organizations.
House Bill 65, introduced by local Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway, would have allowed limited slot machine gambling in service clubs and fraternal organizations in Worcester County in the interests of expanding their fundraising capabilities.
The local courtesy bill was filed early and breezed through the House in March, setting up what appeared to be a happy ending in the Senate. However, the bill never made it out of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and died a painful death as the session expired late Monday.
Last year, the bill made it out of committee near the end of the session, but got caught up in a last-minute swirl of other bills dealing with slots and gaming and never came before the full Senate for a vote. This year, the bill was squashed again at the finish line, likely by outside forces including Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, according to those close to the situation.
“I thought I had an understanding on the Senate side,” said a clearly bitter Mathias this week. “It was filed early, you can tell by the bill number how early it was filed, we worked at it and got it out of the House and over to the Senate in plenty of time, but it was killed at the end of the session for the second year in a row.”
Despite many other successes in terms of local legislation this session, Mathias said losing this bill was the most perplexing and disappointing.
“I am deeply, deeply, deeply disappointed with this one,” he said. “I just don’t understand it, I can’t say it any plainer than that.”
Mathias said Miller staved off a vote on the bill because of his desire to find a way for the state to get a share of any revenue derived by the clubs from slots. He suggested any revenue sharing proposal with the state could have been broached at an earlier date before springing the proposed change on lawmakers as the session expired.
“President Miller said he wanted a tax on these machines, roughly 67 percent, which is the state’s proposed handle on slots,” he said. “If this was just about a tax, I wish we would have talked about it two years ago, last year, even this year in January, so we could come to an agreement. It’s unfair to kill this just days before the session ended because of a tax that was never discussed until it was too late.”
State law requires at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the machines be donated back to charities in the counties where they are located. Slots in the service clubs represent a big boost for their fundraising efforts. Last year, the 273 slot machines located in the eight other Eastern Shore counties rang up a total of nearly $55 million.
While service clubs and other non-profit organizations across the shore have been reaping the benefits of slot machine gambling for over 20 years, Worcester County’s non-profits have been on the outside looking in. American Legion Post 166 Commander Sarge Garlitz, who has been at the forefront of the effort to include Worcester’s non-profits, echoed Mathias’ sentiments about the bill failing again.
“It didn’t get through,” he said. “The bottom line is, Miller stopped it. He sandbagged all bills related to gaming. He said if it gets out of the House, he will make sure it gets a vote before the Senate, but he lied. He thinks the state is not getting enough money from them.”
Slot machine gambling in the clubs had been resisted for years in Worcester County, but last year, for the first time in nearly 30 years, the bill introduced by Mathias and Conway had the blessing of the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the County Commissioners. Garlitz said the death of the bill again this year was an insult to all involved in the effort to get it passed.
“It’s a slap in the face to these clubs that do so much good work with the limited funds they have,” he said. “It’s also a slap in the face to our local delegates, our County Commissioners and our City Council. For two years, we’ve had consensus on this and it should have been a local courtesy bill. It should have breezed through but Miller put the squash on it again.”
Mathias suggested the area’s perceived resistance to slots of any kind for several years could have played a role in the bill’s failure.
“It’s controversial, but let’s be blunt,” he said. “There are people who say it took Worcester County a long time to come to terms with slots and Ocean City still might not be totally on board. They point to the summer of 2007 when practically every sign on the strip had a ‘stop slots’ message on it. But the bottom line is, at some point in time, yesterday is yesterday and we have collectively moved on from that position a long time ago.”