Lawmaker targets video bingo machines

An anti-slots legislator says he will seek to amend a budget bill that is up for a vote today to freeze the number of electronic video gambling devices in commercial bingo halls at the current level.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he is concerned that Maryland could be flooded with a new variety of video bingo machine that is virtually indistinguishable from a slot machine.

He said his proposal is "an attempt to preclude a backdoor effort to introduce slot machines without legislation."

But Randy Clemens, who runs the 2,000-seat Bingo World in Brooklyn Park, said the newer, more sophisticated bingo machines are the wave of the future.

"I was at a bingo trade show last week in Las Vegas and 60 to 70 percent was electronics, showing these machines," said Clemens. "It seems to be the direction that bingo is going in."

Efforts by bingo hall operators to bring in the new machines come as the Maryland legislature considers statewide legalization of slot machines to raise money for the state budget. The measure has passed the state Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Experts say that the new breed of video bingo machine functions almost exactly like a traditional slot machine.

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of the anti-slots group NoCasino Maryland, said that such devices should be prohibited in Maryland.

"We need to stop this before it's too late," she said. "Once they get them in, it's hard getting them out without spending a lot of taxpayer money in litigation."

The Sun reported Wednesday that a coalition of bingo hall operators in Anne Arundel is seeking county regulatory approval to install the electronic gambling devices, and that other bingo operators around the state could follow suit.

County regulators who oversee bingo say there is no limit on the number of machines a hall operator could install if the machines are approved for use.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County, said he doesn't know enough about the bingo machine issue to comment on the merits of Franchot's proposed amendment.

He suggested the new devices might already be prohibited under Maryland law as illegal slots.

"I would think an attorney general's opinion would be the direction to go," Busch said.

Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the office has not been asked by state or local officials to issue an opinion on the legality of the new types of bingo machines.

The new machines feature colorful lights and spinning drums with depictions of cherries, diamonds and other icons familiar to slots players. Customers drop in coins, push a button and, if the cherries line up, can win hundreds of dollars.

But, unlike slot machines, the devices also include a bingo component. They print out paper tickets for winners to cash rather than dropping coins or tokens into a hopper.

Edward O. Wayson Jr., an attorney representing the coalition of Anne Arundel bingo hall operators, said he feels certain the machines meet all legal requirements in light of a decision in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving Indian-run casinos.

Some Maryland bingo operators have installed what are known as bingo "pull tab" machines. They resemble slots but are modeled to technically comply with the rules for instant ticket bingo games.

Those machines have withstood legal challenge through the Maryland Court of Appeals. A Calvert County bingo operator has 75 of the devices, while there are about 35 in the three commercial halls in Anne Arundel County.

Wayson said bingo halls have lost business to slots in Delaware and West Virginia and stand to lose more if Maryland moves ahead with legislative proposals to allow 15,500 slot machines at three horse racing tracks and three other sites.

"It's cataclysmic for us and the charity halls," said Wayson, whose family owns a commercial bingo hall in Wayson's Corner. "We need to have something."