By DAVID SALEH RAUF
ANNAPOLIS (January 16, 2011) War veterans' organizations are taking another shot at passing legislation allowing them to operate slot machines to offset dire finances at posts across the state.
The push is nothing new. For years, lawmakers have been trying to pass legislation, in some form, to allow groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion to operate slots as a way to make extra revenue. Currently, slots at similar nonprofits are only allowed in eight counties on the Eastern Shore.
Legislative analysts estimate 160 veterans' groups around the state could add up to 800 total slot machines under a bill filed by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, and Sen. Barry Glassman, R-Harford. The new slots could generate up to $21 million in annual revenue for the groups, according to a fiscal note from a bill filed last session.
Money generated from slots, members of veterans' groups said, is desperately needed to make up for a decline in membership fees, general fundraising and revenue from rentals of halls for weddings and birthday parties.
"If we do not get those slots some organizations are going to have a tough time surviving," said Carl Vogt, junior vice commander for the Department of Maryland VFW. "Without that we would not be able to support all the community activities and requests, nor would we be able to fully participate in the programs our national organizations require from us."
Under the legislation, The American Legion and VFW would be allowed to operate up to five slot machines at each post. The groups would pay a $50 annual fee for each machine to their respective county and be required to donate half of the earnings to charity.
An identical bill died last session in the House Ways and Means Committee on a 15-7 vote. Supporters are hopeful this session could be different because there's an increased degree of comfort with slots, Glassman said.
"I've been told by a couple of senators you might have a better chance this year," he said.
Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery County and the chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, disagrees. She called the measure "premature" because the state's slots program is still being worked out.
Two of the five slots casinos approved by voters in a 2008 referendum are up and running. Construction of a 4,750-machine facility in Anne Arundel County is slated to start soon, while the other two still don't have qualified operators.
"With us just getting off the ground with the state program I find it highly unlikely we can justify giving slots to other groups," she said. "We are trying not to make any changes to slots at all until we have them all up and running."
Klausmeier also introduced legislation Friday to legalize table game gambling at the for-profit slots casinos authorized in the 2008 referendum.
Legislation passed in 1987 allows nonprofits, including veterans' groups and fraternal organizations, on the Eastern Shore to operate slot machines. Worcester County opted out.
Veterans in the rest of the state are asking for parity. It's those millions of dollars in extra revenue that will help veterans' groups stay afloat and revamp aging buildings, said David Price, a member of The American Legion Post 39 in Harford County.
"Every time something breaks, we Band-Aid it," Price said. "We need to do some major renovations."
Price, who has helped lead efforts in Annapolis for the past five years on the issue, estimates it would cost about a half million dollars to bring his post up to "any kind of decent standard at all."
That's a far cry from a post in neighboring Cecil County, he said.
"In Perryville, that building is like the Taj Mahal," said Price, 63. "That's because they have five slots machines."