ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s leading nonprofit group is worried that approving slot machines for Maryland’s race tracks may lower earnings for charities who use gambling to raise money for their causes.
Peter Berns, executive director for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said there is a concern that Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposal to install up to 11,500 video lottery terminals inside the state’s race tracks “will take all the money from charitable gaming.”
But Berns stopped short of denouncing the slot machine proposal or asking for a share of the anticipated slots profits on behalf of the 3,000-plus member organizations.
“A lot of charities are uneasy to make a grab for a piece of the slots pie, but we’re encouraging the legislators to take a look at it.”
Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, said nonprofits certainly would not see any slots profits, “other than to the communities that are impacted.”
“If slots is passed, it’s going to affect charitable gaming,” Davis admitted, “(but) the money can’t go everywhere.”
There may be some hope. Slots, the most hotly debated issue this legislative session, is not a done deal and many interests are competing for a portion of the profits.
“All the amendments to the governor’s slot proposal are still very much on the table,” said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
Many charities including volunteer fire and rescue companies, rely heavily on gaming profits.
Washington County brought in $85 million in fiscal 2002 from tip jar gambling and a substantial portion is handed over to charities, said Daniel DiVito, director of the county’s gaming office.
In tip-jar games, a player buys a card or ticket and opens a sealed portion, which reveals numbers or symbols. If those numbers or symbols match a card on display at the purchase site, the player wins.
Washington County volunteer fire and rescue companies made $12 million in 2002 from tip jars sold and are permitted to keep all of their proceeds, DiVito said.
Private nonprofits, such as Moose lodges and veterans’ clubs, kept 85 percent of the $6.7 million they raised. The remainder is designated for the county’s gaming fund. That gaming fund, which includes other gambling revenues, then provided $1.4 million to other nonprofits and $1.3 million to fire and rescue.
“This particular kind of gambling in this county has done a lot of good,” DiVito said.
Delegate Robert McKee, R-Washington, said slots should not be a cause of worry for charitable gaming activities.
“If we were going to feel the impact of slots, we would have felt the impact of slots in Charlestown, W.Va.,” McKee said. Charlestown’s gaming activities include thoroughbred racing and slot machines.
L. Jason Baer, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, is less certain of that.
“We don’t know what would happen if (Charlestown) wasn’t there,” he said.
Baer is also unsure of the impact slot machine approval will have on the state’s charity fund-raising, and he did not know if allowing slots would affect fund-raising for the 27 fire and rescue companies in his association.
Legislators should provide a “guarantee” to protect nonprofits if the slots damaged their earnings, he said.
“It’s up to the politicians to shuffle the cards to figure out how it’s going to spill out,” Baer said.
Renee Johnson, spokeswoman for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, declined to say whether there was a concern that slots would affect member fund-raising.
“We don’t use gaming primarily as a means for raising funds,” she said.
Lawmakers are also looking at other charitable gaming laws.
Prince George’s County legislators sponsored a bill to reintroduce gambling as a fund-raising method for charities. Charitable gaming in the county was shut down in 1997 by state law.
At least one lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, is opposed to his county’s sponsorship of the bill to bring it back, saying he was repelled by the scandals and corruption resulting from Prince George’s last experience with charitable gaming.
“I believe it was a serious embarrassment to the county.”