Two dozen fire companies, Jaycees and other nonprofit groups in Prince George's County have launched an all-out campaign to persuade the General Assembly to keep their lucrative casino nights operating.
Fed up with the casinos' well-publicized legal and financial problems, the legislature voted two years ago to shut them down as of May. Casino backers have one more chance to win a reprieve in the 90-day legislative session that begins in January.
They intend to make sure legislators know about all the good that has flowed from gambling proceeds -- from the expensive firetrucks that were purchased to the $25,000 check given to the family of a 2-year-old girl with liver disease.
"All of this stuff is going to end," said Joel D. Rozner, a lobbyist for a coalition of nonprofit groups.
Proponents of the casinos packed a hearing before Prince George's legislators last week, distributing a 12-page "newspaper" touting all the lacrosse gear, Christmas dinners and Boy Scout uniforms that have been purchased with gambling proceeds.
Peter Hogarth, father of 2-year-old Carlie, said he would pitch in by going to Annapolis to talk about the $25,000 check his family received.
"I'm more than willing to provide my small amount of support," he said.
To keep the money flowing, casino backers likely will have to persuade a majority of the county's eight senators, something they were unable to do last year. The county's House delegation has strongly supported the casinos over the years.
If the proponents can push a bill through the General Assembly, Gov. Parris N. Glendening would have a thorny decision to make.
In his 12 years as Prince George's County executive, Glendening learned to live with casino nights. But with momentum for commercial casinos in Maryland apparently growing last summer, the governor vowed to veto any gambling bills that made it to his desk.
Now Prince George's casino supporters are wondering if that promise applies to their nonprofit operations, which have been in existence for almost a quarter-century.
Glendening issued a statement yesterday that he supports efforts to let the law allowing the casinos to expire, or "sunset."
But the statement did not say if he would veto legislation continuing the casinos.
"I fought repeatedly to get control over the gambling in Prince George's County," the governor said. "I tried to reduce or eliminate it, only to have my proposals defeated, once in the legislature and once in the courts.
"I fully expect this to be sunsetted," he said. "I support the sunset."
Alone among Maryland counties, Prince George's allows some nonprofit groups to run twice-weekly casinos.
Now numbering 16, the casinos pulled in more than $77 million over the past three years, according to reports the groups filed with the county sheriff's office.
The casinos, which operate in fire halls and other community meeting spaces, have all of the action but none of the glitz of their counterparts in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
Many stay open until 2 a.m. on weekends, and some offer valet parking, free food or check-cashing services.
The stakes are anything but low-key. It's not unusual to find bettors plunking $100 on a hand of blackjack, or $30 on a poker hand.
On a particularly good day, some groups can pull in amounts approaching $100,000, according to the reports.
The groups have used some of the proceeds to buy fire equipment, expand firehouses or help with community activities such as youth sports. One group purchased a closed-down hospital and is turning it into a nursing home.
But several casinos have landed in legal troubles over the past decade.
County prosecutors have warned in two reports that some casino operators were skimming profits and investigators last year began an embezzlement probe into the Hyattsville casino -- the same group that came through with the $25,000 check for the Hogarth family.
In May, the county closed an Oxon Hill casino operated by Combined International Philippine American Association after audits showed shortfalls totaling more than $500,000.
Most recently, the county shut down a casino last week run by Landover Hills Boys and Girls Club, asserting that the operation had inadequate controls for handling gambling proceeds.
"Does it have problems? Of course, it has problems," Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a casino backer, said at last week's hearing in Largo. "Hope springs eternal that the problems we have experienced in the past will be cleaned up."
Sen. Arthur Dorman, a Prince George's Democrat who would like to see the casinos close, acknowledged that some of the nonprofit groups are doing good work with their gambling proceeds. But he said he gets regular calls from constituents who have gambled away more than they can afford at the local casino.
"It's an easy buck. It plays out a weakness of a heck of a lot of people," Dorman said. "It's a heck of a way to make money."
Casino advocates think they might have been helped by this month's election, in which Prince George's County residents overwhelmingly embraced a proposal that will make it next to impossible to raise taxes in the county.
The casinos generated about $5.2 million in tax revenue last year for the financially pressed county government, not to mention the large sum spent on fire equipment over the years.
"Prince George's County is not in a position to walk away from $5 million a year in revenue," said Rozner, the lobbyist for the nonprofit groups.
Pub Date: 11/19/96