Regulation of gambling urged in Md. Mitchell proposes a watchdog panel

January 12, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer Staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this story.

Concerned that gambling may be getting out of hand in Maryland, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. yesterday proposed regulation of almost every form of gambling allowed in the state, from church bingo to fire hall casino nights to slot machines.

"Gambling is probably here to stay," Mr. Mitchell said at a news conference in Annapolis.

The state "must step in and form a gambling commission to regulate gambling," the speaker said.

Mr. Mitchell's comments came on the eve of the 1993 General Assembly, which convenes tomorrow.

Gambling is expected to be a major issue during the legislative session in view of recent controversy over the new keno lottery game, a federal probe of the awarding of the keno contract and a grand jury investigation of slot machines on the Eastern Shore.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recently launched keno as a means of balancing the state budget, is considering a measure to tighten gambling regulation as well, aides said yesterday.

The governor's measure would apply only to slot machines on the Eastern Shore.

But Speaker Mitchell said a commission should oversee not just slot machines in fraternal clubs on the Shore, but also casino nights in other counties, church bingo games and so-called "tip jar" betting in Western Maryland.

Mr. Mitchell's office is reviewing such a bill now, an aide said last night.

The Lottery Agency also could be affected by such a commission, Mr.Mitchell said, but he did not know yet whether horse racing should be included.

A racing commission already oversees Maryland's horse tracks.

The commission would check the backgrounds of gambling operators, said Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat.

Since last spring, the state has approved off-track horse betting and launched keno, the almost around-the-clock lottery game.

In addition, various clubs and organizations continue to use gambling events to raise funds.

The last time the General Assembly considered regulating gambling was in 1985, but the bill became so controversial that the hearing had to be moved to Cole Field House, the University of Maryland's basketball arena, because there was no facility in Annapolis large enough to hold the audience.

That bill was ultimately defeated.

Regarding the proposal the governor is considering, David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief lobbyist, said: "Details are not available at this time, but a regulation scheme should involve the Maryland State Police and an agency such as the Department of Licensing and Regulation."

Local sheriffs are currently charged with regulating the slot machines.

And that situation, Maryland State Police officials have warned, could lead to corruption.

Legalized five years ago, slot machines have blossomed into a huge, largely unregulated business for Eastern Shore fraternal clubs.

Although half of the proceeds, by law, must go to nonprofit organizations, the state gets none of the gambling revenue.

The Maryland attorney general's office and an Annapolis grand jury are looking into whether revenue from the slots has been properly spent and accounted for.

Investigators are combing through boxes of documents, including bank records, that were subpoenaed from the roughly 50 fraternal clubs licensed to have the machines.

Last year alone, players plunked nearly $30 million worth of quarters into machines at the 50 clubs.

After payoffs to players, the clubs had proceeds of some $5 million, according to financial statements the clubs filed with the state.

Of that, the clubs reported giving half to charities, churches and Little Leagues.

The clubs kept the rest for themselves -- for pool tables and high-tech beer-pumping systems as well as building additions, the statements show.

Meanwhile in Western Maryland, Washington County's commissioners have asked the county's legislative delegation to consider a bill this year that would regulate and tax "tip jar" betting in fraternal clubs and taverns.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, could not be immediately reached for comment.

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