A Baltimore County liquor board regulation prohibits payoffs to players of the video poker machines that are fixtures in many local taverns. But, in the parlance of poker, the rule is a bluff.
Undercover detectives spend hours and tax-dollars to nab bar owners making illegal payments. Yet the accused routinely are given probation before judgment (PBJ) in court. They escape real punishment because of a 12-year-old clause in the liquor board regulations, which says a bar owner's license can't be revoked unless he is found guilty of, or pleads "no contest" to, gambling charges.
Only part of the blame belongs to the District Court judges who make the PBJ rulings. The judges take their lead from county officials, both state-appointed and locally elected, who consider the payoffs relatively harmless.
On the crime front, goes the official view, there are bigger fish to fry, especially with a recession sapping police resources. Besides, others claim, income from the untold number of video poker machines in the state is all that keeps some bars from folding. More cynical observers point out that the payoffs will remain a low priority as long as tavern owners and vending machine companies contribute heavily to local political campaigns.
Make no mistake, these machines rake in the loot faster than a whole fleet of Mississippi riverboat gamblers. Police estimate the annual gross from Baltimore County's 800 licensed video poker machines at nearly $42 million. One machine can earn a bar owner about $50,000 in a year.
Various Maryland officials have discussed legalizing the machines, citing the potential income for the state. But the inherent flaws of this idea should be obvious. First, law enforcement officials fear it would lure mob operators to a state they have largely ignored. Second, studies show about half the people with gambling addictions are hooked on slot and video poker machines. Third, and maybe worst, most gambling addicts have low or fixed incomes and lack health insurance that would cover treatment of their problem.
Baltimore County's new liquor board chairman says the loophole in the troublesome 12-year-old clause regarding punishments for video poker payoffs will be reviewed. We hope this leads to a new rule giving the board the clout it needs to enforce its prohibition on these illegal payoffs. Otherwise, the board's actions will continue to be a bluff.