Arundel tables video bingo

`Triple Threat' machines were proposed for 3 halls

Panel voted against devices

Critics say plan is attempt to bring slots-type gaming

October 04, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel officials have tabled a proposal that would bring video bingo machines resembling slot machines to the county's three commercial bingo halls.

Some critics, such as state Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch, painted the proposal as a backdoor attempt to bring slot-style gambling to Maryland without state approval. Disputes over legalizing slots have dominated state politics for the past two years.

The county's advisory committee on amusement and licensing voted 3-2 in June to allow the machines, known as "Triple Threat Bingo."

The issue then went before the county's legislative review panel, which examines all proposals that might require changes to county law.

That panel decided against developing legislation to allow the machines, said Spurgeon Eismeier, the county's director of permits and inspections.

Anne Arundel and Calvert are the only Maryland counties that license commercial bingo halls.

The bingo industry has not pushed the video bingo issue because it is more interested in other changes to county law that would allow higher stakes and games involving players at multiple sites, said Michael Leahy, an Annapolis attorney who has represented the Maryland Bingo Coalition.

The county is preparing legislation that would allow larger pots -- as high as $50,000 instead of the current $15,000 limit -- and "linked" games featuring simulcasts at multiple bingo halls. The County Council would have to approve such changes.

As for the video machine idea, Leahy said, "I don't think it's off the table, but it's less important to the halls than some of the other things."

County Executive Janet S. Owens said Friday that she did not want to comment on the issue.

Bingo hall operators say they have steadily lost business to gambling halls in West Virginia and Delaware that offer slot machines. However, they hope to stem the losses by offering bigger prizes and more ways to play bingo.

Leahy said the addition of the video machines would present a "complex issue" for the county, one of many reasons the video machines have taken a back seat to other initiatives that would help the industry. He said bingo hall owners are also waiting to see how the machines affect business for their counterparts in other states.

Still, Leahy said he expects video bingo to return as an issue in Anne Arundel, "unless the law changes dramatically."

Courts across the nation have ruled that bingo machines should be classified as bingo and are not the legal equivalent of slot machines. But the county code still would have to be changed to accommodate the machines, because the code prohibits bingo games in which numbers are generated by mechanical devices, Eismeier said.

"Triple Threat" bingo machines feature the spinning drums and bright graphics normally associated with slot machines. Customers feed coins into the machines, and if the correct graphics line up, they can win hundreds of dollars. The visual impression is similar to that offered by slots, but the players and the machine follow the same procedures used in traditional bingo, gambling experts say.

The bingo machines, unlike slots, do not offer the immediate gratification of dropping winnings into buckets. Instead, they spit out tickets that can be redeemed for cash. At a hearing in June, lobbyists for the bingo halls said "Triple Threat" machines are used in Ohio, Florida and Oklahoma.

Eismeier said the panel did not note similarities between the bingo machines and slot machines as a reason for not going forward with the legislation. He said the county amusement and licensing commission is scheduled to hear about another video machine, known as "Rapid Bingo," this month.

Laws governing bingo have received more attention than usual this year because they touch on some of the same issues as the statewide debate over slot machines.

Bills to legalize slots in Maryland at racetracks and other sites have failed for the past two years, but the issue is expected to be back on the General Assembly's agenda when it meets in January. The fate of slots remains uncertain as sharp divisions remain in the legislature over whether to legalize casino-style gambling and, if so, how to do it in a way that reaps the greatest profits for the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller support slots, and the Senate has narrowly passed slots bills each of the past two years. The bills have failed to make it through the House of Delegates.

Bingo hall owners thought a 2001 Maryland Court of Appeals decision had cleared the way for video machines. The court ruled that the Rod & Reel restaurant in Calvert County could operate 75 "Lucky Tab II" bingo machines, which also resemble slots.

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