Retiree Joe Charley, of Clinton, Md., reacts after playing… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
CHESAPEAKE BEACH — Doug Raines likes to travel by boat to his favorite gambling spot. He ties up at a marina outside Abner's Crab House and finds a seat in the "game room," where he pumps cash into one of the establishment's 100 slotlike machines.
"I just come here for a good time," Raines, 53, said on a recent weekday. He pushed a button on a gambling terminal themed after the popular movie "Hangover." He bet a dollar, lost eighty cents, then played again.
The restaurant is one of four in this bayside town in Southern Maryland that also functions as a miniature casino. Three aging "bingo halls" in Anne Arundel County offer similar gambling opportunities. All seven were supposed to shut down this month under a state sunset provision passed in 2009.
But in the waning days of this year's General Assembly, as politicians were locked in a debate over expanding Las Vegas-style gambling to the banks of the Potomac River, the legislature quietly passed a law that will let six of the seven continue to operate indefinitely.
The measure marked a 180-degree shift for the Assembly, which initially wanted to wipe out these small gambling sites to clear the landscape for Maryland's five voter-approved casinos.
But state and local officials became used to the tax revenue the places produce. The mini-casinos hired lobbyists. And the governor and the General Assembly decided to legalize them permanently, the latest embrace of gambling in a state that fought it for years.
"There are a lot of state laws where you don't remember exactly how they got started," said Del. Justin D. Ross, a Prince George's CountyDemocrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, who oversaw the House version of the bill. "In this case, it is a small program and brings in a fairly substantial amount of money for the state. People are comfortable with it staying."
Sen. Ed DeGrange, the Anne Arundel Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he wanted to help establishments that "had been in business for years and years. ... They give to a lot to charities. Plus, they do generate income and taxes to the local government."
The six facilities contributed about $14 million to the state's coffers last year, according to records from the Maryland comptroller's office. In part because the sites will keep some customers away from Maryland's voter-approved gambling program, the net benefit to the state to keep them open is estimated at $9.5 million.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, was one of four members in the upper chamber to vote against the bill. "This seemed like another gambling expansion, and I wasn't convinced that it made sense," he said. "I thought it was safer to vote against it. It just looked funny to me."
Technically, the terminals operating in the little restaurant-casinos are not slot machines. The difference is hardly detectable without cracking open the machines and examining their innards.
From the owners' perspective, they bring in profits on par with slot machines. Last year, three facilities in Chesapeake Beach together made $28 million — earning about $165 per day per machine — about the same return as at the Ocean Downs Casino near Ocean City. At the Anne Arundel County bingo halls, the return per day comes to $150 per machine.
There is one major difference between these small operators and the state's big slots casinos: The tax rate. Operators at the state's voter-approved casinos — three are open, at Arundel Mills, Ocean Downs and in Perryville — pay a 67 percent tax on revenue from their slot machines. The mini-casinos in Calvert and Anne Arundel counties pay about half that.
Del. Michael D. Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the difference in tax rates between the small operators and the casinos "doesn't seem fair." He was one of 20 members to vote against the bill in the House of Delegates.
In Chesapeake Beach, population 5,700, the four mini-casinos are located in a three-block stretch. Legislators decided that the machines in one, a sports bar, were too similar to slots. Those machines were scheduled to shut down July 1, but an Anne Arundel County circuit judge granted an injunction allowing the gambling facility to stay open pending a hearing this week.
A tourist in Chesapeake Beach would never know there was slots-style gambling in the town. None of the places has a sign hinting at the rows of machines within. The three allowed by the legislature include only discreet "gaming" information on their websites, no promises of payola or flashing lights.
"We don't really advertise," said Jim Luckett, owner of Traders Seafood and Steakhouse, a family-style restaurant with about 80 machines in a side bar. "It is just word of mouth. We try to stay low-key."