Too late for slots

March 06, 2012

At least figuratively speaking, it's had more return engagements in Annapolis than Tom Jones or Wayne Newton have had in Las Vegas.

Its chances of survival are probably about as good as hitting the same number on a roulette wheel five times in a row.

Unfortunately, it's a good idea with about as much a chance of becoming law as getting away with counting cards and beating the house on a regular basis.

Slot machine gambling has been legal in the lodges of fraternal organizations in many Maryland counties for decades, but not in Harford County. For decades, bills have been introduced seeking to allow VFWs, American Legions and other posts to operate slot machines in their clubhouses.

Such permission was granted to fraternal organizations in Cecil County years before public slots parlors were given permission to operate at Perryville, Arundel Mills and elsewhere, and the result has been a windfall for a variety of charities. The fraternal organizations have seen strengthened membership. The take, a high percentage of which must be donated to various charities, has been used to pay for ambulances, fire equipment, programs for kids and a variety of other community enhancements.

Meanwhile, fraternal organizations on the west side of the Susquehanna River have languished in part because lodges on the Cecil side are more attractive to veterans in Harford County than the lodges in their home county.

Way back when slot machine gambling was approved for fraternal organization lodges like those in Cecil County, Maryland was a far less complicated place in terms of gambling policy. Approval for slot machines in a particular county's legion posts was simply a matter of getting all of that county's delegates and state senators to agree to it and sign off on a bill saying as much. Under the legislative tradition of local courtesy, the rest of the Maryland General Assembly would sign off on the bill, expecting the same local courtesy for bills affecting policies that affect only the counties they represent.

Typically, Harford County could count on one or two local members of the assembly to put the nix on legion slots in Harford County.

Then came Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who hypocritically opposed gambling with righteous indignation even as the state lottery raked in hundreds of millions under his watch. Glendening's departure from public life after two terms as governor opened the door to slot machine gambling becoming a statewide issue. His successor,Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., favored public slot machine gambling as a way to balance the state budget, but couldn't get a bill through the General Assembly. Gov.Martin O'Malleygot the slots bill through, but it was hardly the panacea for state budget.

Even so, it remains to be seen if slots in fraternal organizations' lodges remains a matter of local courtesy. At this point, there's legitimate reason to believe a slots parlor at a legion post in northern Harford would take away from what's played at the Hollywood Casino in Perryville. Since the state government has an interest in making sure that private venture does well, there's every reason to believe the legislature as a whole will want to protect the large casinos, even if it means denying slot machines to veterans and the take to various charities.

The tune may have changed, but the act has stayed the same: The bill has been introduced, but it isn't likely to pass.

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