Fraternal Slots Bill Returns With High Hopes

OCEAN CITY – Once again, a bill that would allow limited slot machine gambling in non-profit service clubs, fraternal organizations and veteran’s groups in Worcester County has been introduced in the General Assembly, and with a two-pronged approach for the first time, this could be the year it gets approved.

For each of the last three years, a bill that would have added Worcester County to the list of eight Eastern Shore counties allowing a limited number of slot machines in service clubs and organizations in an effort to enhance their fundraising capabilities has passed through the House before dying on the last day in the Senate. This year, however, the bill has already been filed in the House and will soon be cross-filed in the Senate, likely improving its chances of passage this year.

Worcester County Delegates Norman Conway and Mike McDermott this week filed House Bill 39, setting in motion an approval process in that chamber. Senator James Mathias, who, with Conway, has championed the bill on the House side in each of the last three years, is expected to file his own bill on the Senate side as soon as this week. The two bills proceeding on parallel courses could alleviate the late session logjam for the legislation this year.

“Certainly, any time a bill is cross-filed it makes for a more expedient process,” said Mathias “This is the first time it will be cross-filed and, hopefully, this will be the year it finally gets through.”

In each of the last three sessions, the slots-for-clubs bill has died on or near the last day of session for a variety of reasons, not the least of which has been a lack of support on the Senate side. Now a senator, Mathias said he hopes to break down those barriers this year.

“The Senate president has resisted it for the last three years, but I am committed to working with him in getting this bill passed,” he said. “All we’re really asking for is what the eight other counties on the Eastern Shore already have. There are enforcement elements and accountability elements written into the bill.”

McDermott agreed the problem with the legislation in the past has been the lack of support in the Senate, but the freshman Delegate is already calling on his new colleagues to push the bill through.

“It’s strictly a district bill for us,” he said. “The problem has not been in the House, the problem has been in the Senate. I’ve been working with some of the Senators I’ve met in the last two weeks to try to solve that problem. For some reason, it’s been a thorn in the Senate, but that is something that would be nice to come home with this year.”

Three years ago, the bill died on the Senate floor and two years ago it didn’t make it out of committee before the session expired. Last year, the legislation was up for vote in the Senate on the final day after breezing through the House, but died when a rider was inexplicably added to it connecting the bill to an expansion of table games at the Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George’s County. This year, with the bill filed in both the House and Senate, the bill should be approved as a matter of local courtesy, according to its proponents.

“It should be a no-brainer,” said Ocean City American Legion Post 166 Commander Sarge Garlitz, who has been on the front lines of the battle since the beginning. “This should be a Home Rule issue. If the people of this county want it, and it has the support of the city, the municipalities, the County Commissioners, our Senator and our two Delegates, than there is no good reason why this shouldn’t pass this year unless there is something else afoot here.”

Starting in 1987, state law allowed a limited 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. With slot machine gambling approved in the state by referendum, including an overwhelming majority of the voters in Worcester, and the Casino at Ocean Downs up and running, any perceived resistance to the bill has likely disappeared.

“Our county, through the referendum process, already supports slot machine gambling in a controlled fashion,” said Mathias. “The addition of five machines in these clubs and organizations would be very incidental and would not detract from what is going on in the casino.”

McDermott agreed the bill should pass this year as a matter of local courtesy.

“All we’re asking for with this bill is adding a county that should have been included all along,” he said. “We’re probably talking about adding a total of 20 machines on a very limited basis.”