ANNAPOLIS – A bill adding Worcester County to the list of Eastern Shore counties permitting slot machines in non-profit service clubs and fraternal organizations breezed through the House by an overwhelming margin this week, setting the stage for final approval by the Senate.
House Bill 65, introduced by Democratic Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway, would allow limited slot machine gambling in service clubs and fraternal organizations in Worcester County, such as the American Legion or the Elks Club, for example, in the interest of expanding their fundraising capabilities. Slots are currently allowed on a limited basis in all other counties on the shore, and the bill, which passed through the House by a vote of 127-6 this week, would add Worcester to the list.
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 exact same bill introduced by Mathias and Conway had the backing of the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the Worcester County Commissioners. Last year, the bill passed a House vote, but died as the session expired before the full Senate could vote on it when the legislation got caught up in a swirl of other bills related to slots and gambling.
“It got caught up in the swirl of last-minute dealings with other bills related to slots and gambling and there were some last ditch efforts to hang some amendments on it and it never came before a final vote,” Mathias said this week. “It was like trying to come into Ocean City on the Friday night of Fourth of July weekend with the bridge up. A perfect storm of outside influences conspired to kill it last year, but we’re confident it will get through on the Senate side this year.”
American Legion Post 166 Commander Sarge Garlitz has been at the forefront of the effort to permit limited slots in the service organizations and clubs in Worcester County for several years. Garlitz said he remembers all too well how the bill died on the last day of the session last year, but he remains confident it will be approved this year.
“We have a very positive feeling about it this year,” he said. “It stayed in the House a little longer than we hoped, but it was approved this week by an overwhelming majority and is now off to the Senate.”
Garlitz said yesterday he has been working the phones on the Senate side to garner support for the bill. He fully expects it to get the needed support this time around.
“Everything I’ve heard and read seems to indicate the Senate is very favorable of this bill this year,” he said. “Even though Senator Stoltzfus didn’t cross file a bill, he has told us he will do whatever he can to get it pushed through this year. I’ve talked to other senators around the state and the feelings I’m getting are very positive.”
According to language in the bill, in order to operate a slot machine, an eligible organization must obtain a license from the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and pay an annual fee of $50 per machine to the county. Any one organization may not own or operate more than five slot machines and they must be located at the central meeting hall of the organizations.
Limited slot machine gambling was first authorized for eligible non-profit organizations in the eight other counties on the Eastern Shore back in 1987. State law requires at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the machines are 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 left on the outside looking in. If the bill passes through the Senate as expected, the revenue generated could provide a shot in the arm to the struggling clubs.
“This is a huge thing for Worcester County,” said Garlitz. “The non-profits are really struggling in this economy and this would really give them a boost.”
Garlitz cited several examples where the American Legion funnels money back into the local community when and where it is needed. In one example, area middle schools approached the American Legion in January asking for help with the purchase of books for students. In another example, Ocean City Recreation and Parks asked for the Legion’s help with the purchase of equipment for some of their programs. In both cases, American Legion officials had to deny the recent requests.
“We simply didn’t have any money to donate,” said Garlitz. “If we had a few slot machines to generate some extra money, we would have been able to do more of these things. We do a lot of positive things in the community from helping local veterans to the boy scouts and cub scouts and the schools, and getting extra money from a limited number of slots would allow us to expand on that.”