Video lotteries seen as a boon Lawmakers tout the current trend in state-run gambling.

December 19, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Imagine plopping down in front of a video screen at your favorite bar, with a beer and a stack of quarters at the ready.

While the quarters last, you play video poker, keno or blackjack. If you win, you walk away happy -- and richer. If you lose, at least you've done a small part to help solve Maryland's budget problems.

The games are called video lotteries and they are the latest rage in the growing world of state-sponsored gambling.

In the imagination of some legislators, those quarters over the course of a year add up to big money -- enough to help the state emerge from its budgetary morass.

"It's an easy way to generate dollars that are already being spent and let the state take a piece of it," says Sen. George W. Della, D-City. "From our perspective, they ought to be looking at things like that before cooking up new tax things."

Already, South Dakota and Montana, as well as several provinces in Canada, allow video lottery games. Louisiana and Oregon have authorized the machines, and the horse tracks in West Virginia have them as an experiment to gauge interest.

In Maryland, according to one scenario, the state could allow adults-only bars and clubs to install a limited number of the machines, which would be wired to a central lottery agency computer in Baltimore.

The state would take a big chunk of the profits. The bar owners and game suppliers would split the rest.

Video lotteries here could bring the state $119 million their first year in operation, according to Robert S. Babcock, a lobbyist for Video Lotteries Technology, one of the leading manufacturers of the games.

"It's the next lottery product," Babcock said. "If a state wants to expand its lottery revenues, it has to look at video."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is not sure the money is worth it, however.

"He doesn't like the idea of expanding gambling in the state through that means," said spokeswoman Page Boinest. "The concept of it he doesn't like."

William F. Rochford, director of the Maryland State Lottery Agency, said he has explored the idea of video lotteries. He even took the idea to Schaefer during a recent budget meeting. Schaefer rejected it.

The lottery agency already has the authority to begin video lotteries without specific action by the legislature.

Video lottery machines are typically programmed to return to players as winnings about 60 percent of the wagers, Babcock said. The machines cost about $6,000 apiece.

The machines offer players a choice of 10 games, ranging from bingo to something resembling Maryland's instant lottery. Players choose options by touching the screen and pick up their winnings from the bartender or cashier.

Critics call video lotteries nothing but high-tech slot machines, which are illegal in Maryland.

Babcock said a state must be careful about establishing video lotteries. For example, lottery agencies must keep minors away from the games and limit the number of machines in any one place.

"You don't want a casino atmosphere," he said.

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