Gambling's growth in Maryland sparks calls for regulation, new taxes

BETTOR DAYS IN BOONSBORO

January 17, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

BOONSBORO -- Rick Fulks expertly peels back the coverin on his tip-jar tickets to see what numbers he has drawn.

No winners this time. No "55," no "77," no "00."

Another dollar slides into the kitty at the Boonsboro American Legion Hall.

Several years ago, a state legislator called club-based gambling in Washington County "a million-dollar business in dollar bills."

Today, a single club accounts for $1 million in gambling revenue each year and the countywide tip-jar take could exceed $10 million.

Tip jars, so named at a time when the betting slips were tipped out of bags into glass jars or fish bowls, account for only a small part of the state's unofficial Big Casino.

From bingo in church halls to casino night at volunteer fire houses to illegal numbers on the streets of Baltimore, games of chance in Maryland appear to take in $2 billion a year when horse racing and the lottery are included in the estimated revenues.

Patches in the colorful and expanding quilt of gambling include:

* Video poker machines: Illegal as gambling devices, they can make $1,000 week for the clubs that lease them, Maryland State Police intelligence officers say. Often, they can be found under signs that say, "For Amusement Only."

* Numbers: State police say the illegal lottery could amount to half the legal lottery revenue -- or more than $400 million last year.

* Bingo: Big enough in Anne Arundel County to yield $2 million in taxes alone, this game has been the source of embarrassment and corruption. Six people associated with Bingo World in Glen Burnie have pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering conspiracy charges and shareholders sued over the operation's alleged ties to organized crime.

* Casino nights: In Prince George's and several other counties, ,, charitable organizations can be licensed to offer various games of chance.

* Thoroughbred horse racing: Wagering at Laurel and Pimlico in 1992 amounted to about $376 million, down from its best year, 1990, when the total was $436 million.

* Off-track betting: These parlors will be legal but none have opened, and no projected betting figures have been offered by racing authorities.

* Bookmaking: State police say they have no handle on this gambling, which involves professional team sports as well as horse racing.

* The State Lottery Agency: More than $800 million was wagered last year. Keno, a bingo-like electronic game, is a new offering expected to produce as much as $100 million a year.

* Slot machines: On Maryland's Eastern Shore, where slots are legal in clubs, more than $30 million was pumped into them last year. After payoffs to the players, $5 million was available for charitable uses.

As more questions arise from the legal and illegal pursuit of gambling, Gov. William Donald Schaefer says he will propose legislation to tighten control of slot machines, and he supports House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.'s call for a gambling commission.

Single authority favored

State police say that gambling in Maryland cries out for supervision by a single law-enforcement authority dealing only with the crimes associated with gambling -- skimming of profits, machines designed to cheat, "volunteer" workers paid under the table and taxes evaded.

The whole realm of gambling needs careful redefinition within the law to remove ambiguities and to make the statutes reflect technological changes in the gaming devices, in the view of state police Capt. Earl Dennis and Sgt. Terry Katz.

"When you're in an unregulated arena," Sergeant Katz said, "trouble follows even for people with the best intentions."

The push for regulation could be aided this year by a governmental grab for revenue. Washington County's commissioners, for example, want to put a tax on tip-jar proceeds.

"They want a piece of the pie," said Mr. Fulks, referring to the proposed tax bite.

Such a law would force clubs to report what they are taking in and giving out -- figures they now stubbornly withhold.

Bread, butter and Big Daddy

In 30 private clubs and more than a hundred taverns and restaurants in Washington county, tip jars are an unofficial community chest, a source of fun and benevolence, no less than a way of life.

At the Boonsboro Legion Hall, the games are called The Club, Big Daddy and Mini.

Grand prizes vary from $100 to $1,000, but the game is the same. Pay your dollar, check your numbers and hope for a "holder."

Jars are not involved. At the Boonsboro club, the tip-jar tickets are spread out in a pile on a serving island behind the bar.

The game thrives on both immediate and deferred gratification. Small cash prizes of $5 and $10 are awarded for the numbers ending with "55" and ""77."

Numbers ending with double zero, printed on the ticket in red, are called "holders."

The tickets are held until the end of the jar, or game, and the bettor is eligible for a grand prize: $100 for The Club, $500 for Mini and $1,000 for Big Daddy.

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