If you want to gamble in Maryland, you don't have to look far. There are thousands of electronic bingo and video poker machines in bars, restaurants, convenience stores and other locations across the state. The video poker machines take your money and, if you have a winning hand, the bartender or storeowner gives you credit or pays you off. The newer bingo machines look like real slot machines, pay off winners directly and have been declared legal by the state's highest court. But both devices should be outlawed because they are nearly impossible to regulate, cost the state millions in uncollected tax revenues and basically serve as de facto slot machines, which are illegal.
State legislative leaders have proposed a ban on the electronic devices, not because they're opposed to gambling but because the machines would compete with state-regulated slots. This fall, Marylanders will decide whether to allow slots in a referendum that was passed in last year's special legislative session.
The gambling machines have been in widespread use in Maryland for years. A 2006 report from the Abell Foundation estimated that nearly 3,500 machines were operating in the city and Baltimore County, giving operators a windfall of $91 million to $182 million a year. Most of the machines are owned by independent vending companies that split the proceeds with bar or restaurant owners.
Since the Abell report was issued, the state comptroller's office has made some progress in collecting admissions and amusement taxes on money gambled in the 2,822 video game machines licensed in the city as of 2006. But the video poker machines lack counters, and any payoffs are typically in cash, making reliable audits and full tax collection impossible.
Still, banning the machines will be tough. Western Maryland legislators say the machines in their districts are tightly regulated by county officials and the proceeds used to help fund schools, hospitals and emergency services. And gambling machine owners and operators have contributed more than $170,000 to nearly 100 political candidates and committees in the last election cycle.
But lawmakers have decided to give voters the final say on the presence and extent of slot machines in the state, and they will make that choice in November. The barroom substitutes and bingo replicas should be retired.