Committee passes amusement devices bill

December 05, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

A City Council committee approved a bill yesterday that could double the number of video poker games in local bars and restaurants, and expand the types of establishments that can have the games to include convenience stores that offer Keno, a game sponsored by the state lottery.

The Land Use and Transportation Committee voted to move the bill to the full council but not before it was amended to provide public notice and appeal to affected neighborhoods. Convenience stores and other social venues were also added to the list of establishments that can have such devices, some of which are used for illegal gambling, according to local police.

Councilman James B. Kraft, a member of the committee, pushed to have the bill amended to include public notice and appeal, as well as establishments that offer Keno. The measure passed by a 4-to-1 vote. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke voted against the bill, and Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was absent. Those joining Kraft in approving the bill were council members Paula Johnson Branch, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Tuesday incorrectly reported the type of revenue Baltimore is failing to collect from amusement devices, according to an Abell Foundation report. Up to $11 million is being lost from uncollected taxes, the report said. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who is chairman of the committee, abstained from voting, as he owns a bar with his wife and stepson that has four video poker games, a jukebox and a bar-top video game.

Reisinger announced that he had a bar before a work session and hearing on the legislation but failed to disclose that he also had amusement devices. The Sun confirmed with city officials that the councilman's bar, Good Times Tavern in Southwest Baltimore, had too many amusement devices based on its square footage, a violation that had apparently gone unnoticed by city inspectors.

Reisinger could keep all six of the machines, and add even more, however, if the council approves the bill, which was introduced late last year at the request of the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association. It was unclear yesterday when the council might vote on the amusement device bill.

Clarke said she voted against the bill because the city already has a hard enough time regulating existing amusement devices, which can include video poker games, pool tables, shuffle boards and bowling games.

A report by the Abell Foundation this year found that the city misses out on as much as $11 million in annual revenue by failing to license the machines. The city applies the honor system when dealing with bar owners and vending machine businesses.

"I would hope that with all this new windfall revenue ... we would get in our little cars and get the [money] that we are owed, but it might be hard to get through the door with all of these new devices," said Clarke. "I honestly didn't think that such a bill would make it out of committee, but it came flying out with an overwhelming majority."

Vending machine company owners are frequent and generous campaign donors, according to the State Board of Elections. One such company owner held a fundraiser for Mayor Martin O'Malley a few days before the bill was introduced. The businessman dismissed any connection, but later was forced to take back $4,000 from O'Malley, who won the governor's race last month, because he had exceeded the contribution limit for an individual.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, who is not a member of the committee, attended the voting session because he said he wanted to make sure convenience stores were added. He said that if elected officials really wanted to curb the machines, they should ban them.

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