Video poker and slot machines would be legalized in Harford County under two bills to be introduced this week in the General Assembly by Sen. William H. Amoss, D-District 35A.
Amoss said he will introduce tomorrow a bill which would allow establishments with liquor licenses -- such as bars and private clubs -- to have two video poker computer machines on the premises for entertainment. The game is played byhitting a button to stop cards flashing across a screen.
A second bill he plans to propose would legalize the use of slot machines only in private, non-profit clubs -- such as American Legionor VFW posts. The clubs would be required to use half the revenue from the machines for charity. Each establishment would be limited to five machines.
But the county states' attorney, Joseph I. Cassilly, said he opposes both bills because they would legalize devices thatcould be abused by gamblers.
If video poker machines are legalized in Harford, Cassilly said the only way to discourage illegal gambling would be through a severe fine, possibly as high as $25,000.
Amoss said his bills would promote the use of video poker and slot machines for entertainment purposes. "These bills have nothing to do with gambling in the world," Amoss said.
Amoss presented a draft of the bills at the Harford delegation's weekly meeting Thursday in Annapolis to solicit support for the legislation.
Delegate Rosemary Hatem Bonsack, D-District 34, chairwoman of the seven-member delegation,said the delegation will support Amoss' slot machine bill.
"I don't have any problem with that bill, because the veterans groups can use the revenue wisely and we can have good control and management over how those monies are being used," she said. "But the five delegateswere really not in favor of video poker at all."
After talking with the delegation, Amoss amended the video poker bill to include restrictions on which establishments could have the machines and how manymachines each establishment could get permitted.
He said that hisproposals would include penalties for gambling: A $1,000 fine, or upto one year in jail, or both for each violation.
Amoss said his slot machine bill would require an annual permit from the county to operate each machine. The annual permit fee would be $150, which Amoss said would cover policing costs.
Video poker machines would be licensed solely for amusement, the senator said.
Half the money madeoff each slot machine in private clubs would have to be spent on charitable efforts, Amoss said. No such requirement is attached to the video poker machine bill.
The restrictions, said Amoss, "will greatly limit their use, and will pretty much restrict the use of video poker machines to people
21-years-old and older. The delegation did not say they were for it, but they said they felt better about the amendments. I will put the bill in as soon as Senator (Habern W.) Freeman, D-District 34, signs it. He has said he will support the bills."
Cassilly said Maryland courts have defined slot machines as machinesthat do not require skill; machines on which the player cannot affect the outcome of the game; and machines that have a point accumulation on which a payoff can be made and an odds mechanism that regulates how often the machine allows a customer to win.
"Video poker machines do what slot machines did by using microchips instead of wheels and springs," said Cassilly.
"They'll give you fruit, bells and nuts or ace, king, queen, jack on a computer screen. But the difference between that and Pac Man is that Pac Man requires skill. Your reflexes, speed, judgment control the outcome of the game. With the other machines, you push buttons and it elects what to do."
Amoss said he decided to introduce the bills after repeated requests from constituents.
For at least three years, some veterans groups in the county have lobbied the county delegation to have the machines legalized. Officers at the veterans clubs say the machines could raise significant money for their organizations, and they have pledged to put some ofthe money back into community projects.
Amoss said slot machines are a good way for the fraternal clubs to raise money for charity. Hemodeled the slot machine bill on a law in effect in eight Eastern Shore counties, including Cecil County, which Amoss also represents.
Amoss said his bills are different than one proposed last year by former Sen. Catherine Riley, D-District 34. Riley's bill passed the Senate, but died in the House Judiciary Committee in the 1990 General Assembly session.
"She wanted to gamble. This won't be the same. This includes strong language so that people know that if you're caught gambling, you could lose everything," said Amoss.
But county state's attorney Cassilly said: "Gambling -- that's all they're good for. There's no such thing as an appropriate regulation to keep them honest. In my opinion, video poker machines are slot machines. There's no difference.
"To say he's going to put in a bill with restrictions for gambling will not work. And if somebody tells him it will work they're naive or they're trying to put something over on him."
In 1987, Cassilly cracked down on video poker machines, which display cards on a video screen similar to other video games. He ordered a police raid to confiscate 26 illegal machines in several bars and veterans organizations. He said an investigation had found the bars and clubs illegally had the machines and some were paying jackpots to game winners.
"We found people in this county taking $750,000 a year outof these machines, and the money just disappeared," said Cassilly. "Their income tax records showed a $40,000 a year income."
But Amoss said it doesn't have to be that way, and he points to Harford's neighbor, Cecil County, as an example.
"One club in Cecil County donated a $52,000 piece of equipment to a local fire company, and another is giving out scholarship money," said Amoss.
"This is the only thing that would generate that kind of revenue. And I'm trying to cover to the best of my ability the problems the state's attorney's had with them."
Cassilly said that he's found private clubs have keptpoor records on revenue generated from such machines.
"I'm completely against private bars having those machines, unless there were some horrendous fine of $25,000 per machine for violations," said Cassilly.
"And I don't like people who come in cavalierly without asking what are the problems. I'm also against this bit-by-bit, county-by-county legislation. Everybody should be able to gamble or not."