A City Council committee is expected to vote today on a bill that would allow Baltimore bars and restaurants to increase - in some cases to double - the number of video poker machines and other amusement devices they operate.
The bill also would eliminate the rights of neighbors to protest the addition of the devices, some of which have been linked to illegal gambling. If the committee approves the measure, it will move to the full council.
The bill was introduced last year at the request of the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association, and is under consideration by the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Councilman Edward L. Reisinger. He is part-owner of the Good Times Tavern with his wife and stepson.
A visit to the tavern by a Sun reporter revealed that the establishment had six amusement devices, a violation of the city zoning law. A spokesman for the city housing authority, the agency that monitors the devices, said the tavern can legally operate five machines.
Asked about the violation and apparent conflict of interest, Reisinger said he was unaware that his bar had too many amusement devices and that he had done his best to disclose his financial interest in the tavern, which is in Morrell Park in Southwest Baltimore.
"I guess we'll have to take one of the machines out," said Reisinger, who added that he will not vote on the bill.
Reisinger said that during a hearing and work session on the legislation, he announced that he owned a bar, but did not disclose that he also had amusement devices.
A review of the councilman's financial disclosure reports shows that in the past four years, he noted his partnership in the bar once. His family purchased it in 1999.
"We had the hearing, and I was as objective as I could be," Reisinger said.
The city finance and planning departments oppose the bill, though there is some potential for additional revenue to the city, which collects licensing fees from bar and restaurant owners who are required to register amusement devices. And while the law department signed off on the bill's legal sufficiency, it also raised concerns about the legislation's possible impact.
The law department pointed out in an April memo to council members, more than half of whom are sponsors of the bill, that the legislation amends the list of establishments that can have amusement devices to include restaurants without liquor licenses. The bill would allow for up to 11 amusement devices, six of which could be devices other than pool tables, bowling or shuffle board machines and jukeboxes.
"This will greatly expand the types of establishments where amusement devices could legally be placed," wrote Elena R. DiPietro, assistant solicitor, in the memo.
Later, alluding to instances of illegal payouts on video machines documented by local police, DiPietro wrote: "The bill could serve to promote illegal gambling through amusement devices."
The council bill was introduced Nov. 21, 2005, four days after bar and restaurant owners were warned by the city that inspectors would begin enforcing zoning laws limiting the number of devices based on an establishment's square footage.
The notice came on the heels of questioning by former Sun reporter Joan Jacobson, who was conducting research for a report on the underground video gambling industry for the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit organization.
The report, which was published by the foundation in January and concluded that the city was missing out on as much as $11 million annually in uncollected tax revenue, states that at about the same time Jacobson notified city officials of instances of amusement device violations, city officials independently noticed other businesses with too many machines.
One of the leading proponents of the bill at the time was John Vontran, past president of the Baltimore Liquor Licensed Beverage Association and the owner of Amusement Vending Inc. Vontran, like many vending machine business owners, is a frequent contributor to political campaigns. He held a fundraiser at his home for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley a few days before the bill was introduced.
Questioned about the timing of the fundraiser and the bill, Vontran has said it was coincidental.
O'Malley, who was elected governor last month, eventually returned $4,000 to Vontran after an inquiry by the state prosecutor's office found Vontran had exceeded the contribution limit for an individual.
Telephone calls to Vontran seeking comment on the amusement device bill were not returned.
A review of sign-in sheets for a hearing and session on the bill shows that most attendees were bar owners who have appealed zoning notices that they were over the limit for amusement devices, and industry lobbyists.