Late Amendment Dooms Slots for Clubs Bill Again

ANNAPOLIS- Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of the just-finished General Assembly session was the death of a bill that would have allowed limited slot machine gambling in non-profit service clubs, fraternal organizations and veterans organizations in Worcester County, which was once again undone on the last day when a late amendment added on the Senate side stalled the legislation.

House Bill 56, pre-filed this year by local Delegates Norm Conway and James Mathias, would have added Worcester County to the list of Eastern Shore counties that permit a limited number of slot machines in non-profit veterans organizations and service clubs in an effort to enhance their fundraising capabilities. What appeared to be a local courtesy bill breezed through the House back in early March, setting up what appeared to be a happing ending this year.

However, for the third straight year, complications at the finish line doomed the seemingly innocuous piece of legislation. Near the end of the session, an amendment was added to the bill that would have enabled table gambling at the Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George’s County provided the state’s electorate approved the measure through the referendum process.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee approved the bill with the amendment attached and sent it back over to the House for reconciliation. However, the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation, did not concur with the amendment adding table games at Rosecroft, subject to a referendum, and sent the bill back to the Senate on Monday, the last day of the session.

The Senate leadership could have appointed a conference committee to pave the way for the passage of the bill that would have allowed limited slots at Worcester County’s service clubs and veterans organizations without the Rosecroft table games amendment, but the conference committee was never formed and the bill died in the Senate as the session expired.

“Procedurally, that’s what happened,” said a clearly bitter Mathias this week. “I am deeply, deeply disappointed. I’m disappointed for all of the folks in the service clubs and fraternal organizations that worked so hard again this year on this bill. Building a consensus on this took a long time and it just didn’t get through again.”

Starting in 1987, state law allowed a limit number of slot machines in service clubs, veterans’ organizations and fraternal organizations across the Eastern Shore as a means to enhance their fundraising efforts. State law requires at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the machines are donated back to the charities in the counties in which they are located.

Slots in the service clubs represent a big boost for their fundraising efforts. Last year, for example, the 273 slot machines located in the eight other Eastern Shore counties rang up a total of nearly $55 million, most of which went right back into the multitude of local charities the clubs support.

For two decades, slots in the service clubs were not supported in Worcester largely because of a greater resistance to the legalized gambling in the area in general. For the last three years, however, the County Commissioners and the Ocean City Mayor and Council have given their blessing to a limited number of slot machines in the service clubs to no avail. What should ostensibly be a local courtesy bill affecting no other county in the state has been sandbagged at the finish line in each of the last three years for a variety of reasons.

This year, the amendment added by the Senate committee attaching table games at Rosecroft in Prince George’s County signaled the death knell for the bill. Sarge Garlitz, commander of the American Legion Post 166 in Ocean City, who has been on the front lines of the battle since the bill was unsuccessfully introduced three years ago, suggested there must be some kind of conspiracy against the legislation.

“Attaching that amendment killed it right away and they knew that,” he said. “If this bill got to the Senate floor without that amendment attached, it would have breezed on through without a problem.”

Like most close to the situation, Garlitz said he was uncertain why the table games for Rosecroft amendment was attached to Worcester County’s slots for service clubs bill in the first place.

“It just doesn’t make any sense unless there was something else afoot here,” he said. “That table games amendment would have to go to referendum anyway. It didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Garlitz said for the last three years, Conway and Mathias have battled for the bill’s passage and each year they got it out of the House and into the Senate.

“These guys went above and beyond what they should have to do to get this bill passed,” he said. “Conway and Mathias did all they could do, but they got blindsided by the leaders of the Senate. To get blindsided like this by their own party is criminal.”

For his part, Mathias said the bill would likely be brought back again next year.

“This is terribly unfortunate for the people of this county and this district,” he said. “Next year, I vow to do everything I can possibly do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”