For amusement only?

December 06, 2006

An editorial that appeared Tuesday should have stated that Baltimore loses about $10 million a year in uncollected admission and amusement taxes on licensed video poker games.

By passing a bill to allow more so-called amusement games in bars and other businesses, a City Council committee this week may have attached inadvertent meaning to Baltimore's "Get in on it" slogan. The "it" in this case is the tenacious underground of illegal gambling built upon machines that are supposed to be played only for fun. Unless the measure is stopped in its tracks when it comes before the council, the city's wink-and-nod gambling culture threatens to grow into a full-fledged sneer at the law.

With too little discussion on a bill this alarming, the committee inexplicably smoothed the way for bars, restaurants and convenience stores to install even more games of chance than the city currently can keep track of. This comes less than a year after the Abell Foundation released a damning report noting that many of the amusement devices are unlicensed - which means that as much as $11 million in uncollected fees fails to make it into the city coffers each year - and are rigged so that some players win cash - which means they are illegal.

Didn't anyone other than Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who cast the sole dissenting vote, read the Abell report? And if other council members did read the report, how can they justify supporting a bill that will only add to a problem that has vexed zoning law inspectors and tax collectors for decades?

In a memo citing the obvious, city lawyers informed council members that the bill, by doubling the number of devices certain businesses can install on their premises, "could serve to promote illegal gambling." So how did the committee react to this caveat before it passed the measure? It defied logic by amending the bill to make it OK for convenience stores currently offering only the state lottery's Keno game to create new arcades by adding video poker and other machines.

Even before the committee made a bad bill worse, there were problems with how it was handled, not the least that it was assigned to the Land Use and Transportation Committee under Chairman Edward L. Reisinger. The 10th District councilman is part owner of a tavern that could benefit from the bill's passage. And, according to Sun reporter Lynn Anderson, his business offers patrons six amusement devices, one too many under current city regulations.

The councilman prudently agreed to sit out the bill vote, but the combination of a conflict of interest and an apparent violation of the city zoning law should have aroused enough doubt to hold the bill for another committee. Unless, that is, the issue is for amusement only.

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