Casino nights with dice, roulette and card games for a cause can finally come to Carroll now that Gov. Larry Hogan signed the long-awaited Carroll County nonprofit gaming bill on Tuesday.
After the law goes into effect Oct. 1, Carroll fire companies, nonprofits, hospitals and veterans organizations, among others, will be able to hold up to four gaming nights per year, featuring casino-style games as fundraisers. Players will pay a flat entrance fee and trade the gaming chips they win for noncash prizes.
That's a relief and a sweet victory for Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, who has been introducing the gaming bill in the Maryland General Assembly for the past seven years and seeing it pass the House, only to see it fail to become law.
"The reason it was important to us is that it's just one more tool in the toolbox for nonprofits in the area," she said. "It's been a frustrating process, but we are very pleased it's done. … I never for the life of me — for 7 years — didn't know what the big deal was with it. … Remember, it's not for money."
The legislative debates over casino gambling in Baltimore were partly responsible for holding up the passage of the bill, according to Krebs. She said the Carroll proposal got tied up with the casino debate despite being focused on noncash prize fundraising aimed at nonprofits, particularly the fire companies.
Carroll's 14 fire companies are the group that has awaited the passage of the gaming bill with the most suspense, according to Carroll County Commissioner Steve Wantz, R-District 1, who is also a past president of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association.
"As a county commissioner, I am thrilled to have it," Wantz said. "The more that we can create fundraising for volunteers, the more we will be able to keep them here. It's crucial."
Wantz, and others at CCVESA, first hit upon the idea of casino gaming nights as a possible way to expand fundraising efforts for the fire companies.
"We were trying to come up with some creative ways to do some different things with fundraising instead of the same old suppers and the bull feeds and the crab feeds," Wantz said. "We were sitting around one night and said, 'Hey, you know, the casino thing is really starting to hit. We ought to try that.' "
Veterans organizations are also excited about the potential of casino gaming nights, especially given the popularity of games like Texas Hold 'em Poker, and the World Championship of Poker being carried by ESPN, according to Russell Myers Jr., a member of the Westminster American Legion Post 31 and the state adjutant for the American Legion of Maryland.
"I think it just gives you different audiences to target to help raise funds from," Myers said. "Everybody in the community wants to come out and support it because they know the funds go back to support things in the community. This just gives us an opportunity to give something different for them to do."
Myers said there are not any concrete plans that he knows of to host a casino gaming night at a veterans organization in Carroll, nor could Wantz cite any dates being planned by the fire companies. That's because the Carroll County Board of Commissioners have to write the regulations before they can accept applications for gaming permits.
"We have to look at what we have to do, what we can do, and then we'll move forward on it," Wantz said. "We have a little time: Oct. 1 is when it kicks."
The way casino gaming nights are supposed to work, according to the legislation, is players will pay a flat entrance fee for gaming chips to be used at the event that will then be exchanged for prizes not to exceed $10,000. An organization will be able to obtain a permit for four casino gaming nights per calendar year, events that cannot last longer than 24 hours nor run later than 1 a.m. on a Sunday.
An organization that holds a gaming night will be required to make a financial report to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners within 60 days of the event that will include the name, address and Social Security number of any person declared the winner of a casino event.
The legislation also mandates that the organization that obtains a permit for a casino gaming night either host and operate the event themselves, or bring in another nonprofit to operate the card tables and roulette wheels. There will be no paid gaming operators, and this is for a reason, according to Krebs.
"Years ago, 40 years ago, there were issues in other counties with these huge commercial gambling operations, especially in southern Maryland," she said. Under the new law, Krebs said, "A fire hall might rent all the [gaming equipment] and be the experts and do it for the Lions Clubs."
Krebs is concerned that one change made to the gaming bill in the Senate might slow the process of developing regulations in the county.
"The one thing they changed, there is language in there that said if someone violated a rule, there would be up to a five-year suspension of their operating license," Krebs said. "They took the 'up to' out, which is pretty strict to me since there could be a minor violation."
Given the stakes made clear in the law, Wantz said the commissioners will ensure that the regulations are clear and cannot lead anyone into inadvertent violation of the rules. He still believes the regulations will be ready to go long before October.
"We're going to have to be very, very cautious on how we move forward, too. There's a lot of things we have to make certain," he said. "I can tell you that by the middle or end of summer, we will start to see some advertisements for casino nights somewhere."