CUMBERLAND -- Slot machine gambling is against the law in most parts of Maryland, but you would never know it here.
Throughout Allegany County, bars, restaurants and fraternal clubs feature video poker machines that produce cash payouts for lucky players. The machines bear signs "For Amusement Only," but everyone knows that winners can collect their money -- anywhere from $10 to $300 or more -- at the bar.
Such illegal electronic gambling is not unique to the county and can be found in many spots across the state. What sets Allegany apart is that local officials openly tolerate it.
Allegany State's Attorney Lawrence V. Kelly says that because the practice is so pervasive and it helps fund some charitable work, he sees little point in enforcing the law.
"It would be sending all the wrong messages," Mr. Kelly said in an interview this week. "We would lose the respect of the people."
Other local officials seem to agree.
Instead of cracking down, the county commissioners have said they want to legalize electronic gambling at clubs, bars and restaurants. The commissioners are forming a study group to draft legislation for next year's General Assembly session in Annapolis.
"It's here," said Commissioner Dale Lewis matter-of-factly. "Let's put a tax on [the gambling] and make it legal and the county will get additional revenue."
Earlier this week, a Sun reporter visited several establishments here where owners, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that they were operating the machines as gambling devices.
Club proprietors said they need the extra money to support various charity work, from Little League baseball teams to 4-H clubs. And without the added revenue, they might go under, they said.
Owners of bars and restaurants said they need their own machines to compete with the clubs, which use gambling proceeds to subsidize the cost of food and alcohol.
No one will say publicly how many places offer electronic gambling, but officials privately acknowledge that there are dozens spread throughout the county, which has at least 50 fraternal clubs and more than 100 restaurants and bars.
Even the Western Maryland Democrat Club, a local political organization, offers payouts to those who play its machines.
The club is in a nondescript, box-shaped building in a residential neighborhood. Four video-poker machines sit near the bar.
The club's owner and president, Etta Helmstetter, estimates they generate a net income of about $10,000 a year.
The money, she says, helps fund voter registration drives, provides part of the club's annual $3,000 contribution to the local Democratic Party, subsidizes food and allows her to serve a Kahlua and cream for as little as $1.25.
"That's our livelihood," she said, glancing at the machines which blinked quietly in a darkened room. The move to legalize and regulate them is driven by pure economics, she said.
"There's too much money involved not to do something," she said.
At a nearby restaurant, another proprietor explained why taverns and bars need gambling machines: to compete.
Marla Gornall charges $1.25 for a beer at her restaurant, "When Pigs Fly," which specializes in ribs, chicken and seafood. A bar in Frostburg with electronic gambling, she says, charges just 75 cents.
She wishes the Maryland legislature would legalize video poker gambling so she could catch up. "I'm just waiting my turn," she said. "I'll get them, but when they are legal."
The most powerful politician supporting the legalization effort is Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democratic legislator from Cumberland and the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.
Mr. Taylor is unfazed that the local prosecutor isn't enforcing the law. When Mr. Kelly first announced his policy in the Cumberland Times-News earlier this year, "I really didn't pay much attention to it," Mr. Taylor said.
Of greater concern to the speaker is what he calls the inherent unfairness of the current gambling laws. In Allegany and other Western Maryland counties, private clubs are permitted to run so-called "tip jars," a low-key but lucrative numbers game.
Mr. Taylor also wants to expand gambling in Allegany and the rest of the state in the name of economic development. During the last legislative session, he backed an unsuccessful bill to permit 12,000 slot machines at three race tracks and three other sites statewide. The issue is expected to be one of the most contentious when the General Assembly convenes again in January.
Under current Maryland law, slot machines are legal only in fraternal clubs in eight Eastern Shore counties.
Despite such strong support for gambling among public officials here, not everyone is enamored with the idea or the prosecutor's policy.
"As a state's attorney, it's his job to enforce the law whether he agrees with the law or not," said the Rev. Rick Jewell, pastor of Kingsley United Methodist of Cumberland.