Schaefer urges gambling commission

March 04, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

Marylanders spin the wheel at casino nights in Prince George's County, yell "Bingo!" in Anne Arundel, hope for lucky numbers in Western Maryland tip jars and pump one-armed bandits on the Eastern Shore.

They collect illegal winnings from video games, play high-stakes poker all night, shoot craps and bet on sporting events.

Some of the gambling is legal -- some is not. Some is for charity -- some just for greed. Millions of dollars are involved annually, but little of Maryland's gambling is regulated or documented. Much of it, state and local police say, is rife with skimming, cheating and criminal behavior.

Saying it's time to bring order to chaos, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday urged the General Assembly to enact legislation establishing a Maryland Gambling Commission. The bill is scheduled for its first hearing at 1 p.m. today in the House Judiciary Committee.

The seven-member panel would have broad authority to license organizations that are allowed to conduct gambling activities.

It would require standardized reports on receipts, operating expenses, payoffs or prizes, amounts retained by licensees, amounts disbursed to charitable, religious or other organizations and the identity of each recipient.

The legislation is based on the work of the Governor's Task Force to Study Gambling, which issued its final report yesterday after months of hearings.

"They concluded -- and I agree -- that we need to regulate, oversee and license different kinds of gambling in Maryland," Mr. Schaefer said.

He said he was particularly concerned about misuse of slot machines, which are legal in nonprofit fraternal and veterans' clubs in eight Eastern Shore counties.

In his first term, Mr. Schaefer fulfilled a campaign promise to sign legislation allowing the machines, but he has since said he regretted it.

"I can personally say they are not regulated, not accounted for, no real accountability for the money at all," he said. While the House is expected to pass the bill this year, a roadblock remains in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and its powerful chairman, Walter M. Baker.

"It sends the wrong message, that we are a gambling state, and we're not," said Mr. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat whose constituents have demonstrated a long-standing fondness for slot machines.

Mr. Baker has introduced his own bill, which would increase the fees that Eastern Shore clubs pay for each slot machine, require them to give local sheriffs copies of the reports they now send to the state comptroller and to keep slot machine proceeds separate from other funds.

But his bill does not go nearly as far as the Gambling Task Force measure, whose provisions would:

* Allow the commission to collect fees, keep records, administer two-year licenses, prepare reports and sign and issue subpoenas.

* Require state and local police and prosecutors to cooperate in enforcing state gambling laws.

* Require the commission to make sure that groups that claim to be nonprofit charitable organizations for gambling purposes really are, and to assure that funds that are supposed to go for charitable purposes really do.

* Require Eastern Shore clubs with slot machines to keep detailed logs, inventory lists, equipment serial numbers and maintenance and repair records.

* Prohibit those organizations licensed to conduct legal gambling from mixing gambling proceeds with other funds.

* Establish regulations to prohibit gambling operations from employing anyone convicted of a felony or any crime involving fraud, gambling, taxes, theft or drugs.

* Authorize the commission to suspend or revoke the license of any gambling operation that violates regulations or improperly disposes of records, proceeds or equipment.

Del. Gary Alexander, a Prince George's County Democrat who served on the commission, stressed that the legislation does not alter or supersede any state or local law that now authorizes gambling.

The bill also directs the commission to compile information about gambling's "sociological, psychological and economic impact" on Marylanders, including compulsive gambling, criminal activities and other problems.

The commission also would be asked to recommend whether specific types of gambling should be allowed or prohibited.

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