Tip jar tip -- just say no

Allegany County: Effort to extend gambling to for-profit bars and restaurants should be rejected.

January 02, 2001

WHEN IT comes to gambling, residents of Allegany County in Western Maryland are decidedly two-faced. It's okay in some instances, but not in others.

It's legal for non-profit groups, such as the Elks and volunteer fire companies, to conduct tip-jar gambling -- pull-tab cards, similar to lottery-tickets, often drawn from a glass container.

Yet the same tip jars in county bars and restaurants are illegal.

For years, the local prosecutor refused to enforce this law, leading to wholesale gambling violations. Things got so bad the prosecutor cracked down in October. Now tavern and eatery owners are pressing to keep those tip jars. They like that unreported cash.

So Allegany's commissioners stepped in, trying to please everyone. They support a "level playing field" so bars and restaurants can have tip jars. Yet they don't want to tax this gambling -- or make anyone accountable for the money.

Perhaps they feel that's a job for the IRS or the state comptroller. Perhaps the commissioners feel their poor county doesn't need more revenue. Or maybe they just want the issue to disappear.

There is no firm state gambling policy: Tip jars are legal in parts of Western Maryland but restricted in some places; slots are legal at non-profit clubs in most Eastern Shore counties; "casino nights" for non-profits are okay in some counties; for-profit bingo is allowed in Anne Arundel. Video poker is legal as "amusement" in many counties, but covert payouts are customary.

No wonder Allegany officials took a two-faced stance. The state can't make up its mind, either.

Until there is a comprehensive state policy, with tough accounting standards, legislators should reject any move to expand tip jars. What's needed is a gambling commission to make sense of Maryland's games of chance. We can't leave these decisions to local officials who are unwilling to take on powerful interests clamoring for more rolls of the dice.

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