ANNAPOLIS — Blair E. Cross, a Veterans of Foreign Wars state leader, urged a Senate committee Wednesday to endorse two bills that would legalize video poker and slot machines in Harford County.
Cross, a junior vice commander for the VFW in Maryland, told the Judicial Proceedings Committee at a hearing that the machines are needed for Harford's civic organizations to raise the amount of money they contribute to charity.
"We're pretty well confined in Harford County," said Cross, of Whiteford. "That's why we need these bills now. . . . What we need is to put more money into the community."
Cross testified on two billssponsored by Sen. William H.
Amoss, D-District 35A, and Sen. Habern W. Freeman, D-District 34. Freeman sits on the 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The committee took no action on the bills after hearing testimony for the legislation, which lasted about 20 minutes.
Both bills have the support of the county's seven-member delegation.
One bill would allow establishments with liquor licenses,such as bars and private clubs, to have two video poker machines forentertainment purposes.
The second bill would permit slot machines in private clubs, such as the VFW. The legislation would require that the club give at least half the proceeds from the machines to charity organizations.
For at least the last three years, some county veterans groups have lobbied the county delegation to have the machines legalized.
The bills are modeled after legislation that permitsslot machines in Maryland's eight Eastern Shore counties, including Cecil County. That legislation passed the assembly and was signed by the governor four years ago.
But Gov. William Donald Schaefer saidat the time the Eastern Shore legislation was enacted that he would not permit the expansion of slot machines and video poker machines inother parts of the state.
Schaefer said he would veto the Harfordbills if they pass the General Assembly. The governor said he opposes the legislation because of concerns that the bills would lead to gambling and organized crime.
But Cross dismissed that concern.
"This, basically, does not happen," he told the committee.
Cross testified that Harford's civic organizations need slot machines so theycan increase charitable donations, like those being made in neighboring Cecil County.
"We cannot give to charity like other counties can give," Cross said.
Groups like the VFW are only permitted to run bingo games and sell chances on pull tabs to raise money, Cross said. The groups also are able to sponsor three "Las Vegas Days" a year,when paddle wheels can be used.
Some Harford veterans organizations were operating slot machines several years ago, but those machineswere confiscated in raids organized by the county State's Attorney about three years ago, Cross said.
Amoss testified that Cecil County organizations have donated thousands of dollars since slot machines were legalized.
Amoss noted that one American Legion post in Perryville has given the community's volunteer fire company a total of $82,000 to buy fire equipment.
"I've been absolutely tickled to death by the way this bill has worked out," Amoss said. "I would like tosee Harford County have the same opportunity to help the community."
Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-District 37, a committee member who sponsored the Eastern Shore legislation, noted that the Harford bill has the same safeguards as the Eastern Shore legislation.
The sheriff's department in each Eastern Shore county administers guidelines written by the state Attorney General's Office for the slot machines, Malkus said.
Regarding the video poker bill, Amoss said many small establishments need the revenue from the machines to attract customers and compete with large businesses.