A newly elected Prince George's County senator will make a long-odds effort next week to win the county House delegation's backing for the return of charity-sponsored casinos.
Defying Gov. Parris N. Glendening's threat to veto any expansion of gambling, Sen.-elect Nathaniel Exum has filed legislation that would allow nonprofit groups to have "casino nights" in Prince George's.
The county's roulette wheels and blackjack tables fell silent in May 1997 after the General Assembly -- under pressure from Glendening -- declined to renew authorization for them after 20 years of legal gambling.
The casinos had become a mainstay of the fund-raising efforts of volunteer fire departments, fraternal organizations and other county nonprofit organizations during their two decades in business.
But along with the fire equipment, senior centers and athletic uniforms paid for with profits came a series of scandals, as the volunteer-run casinos evolved into slick professional operations. Glendening cited the abuses as factors in his 1997 decision to oppose any extension of gambling in the county.
Exum, a Democratic delegate who defeated an incumbent senator in the September primary, said yesterday that he introduced his bill in response to concerns raised by constituents, including volunteer firefighters.
"Naturally there's been a lot of lost revenue," Exum said. "I've had one of my neighborhood volunteer fire departments saying they're in bad shape."
One organization that has felt the pinch from the loss of gambling revenue is the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, which made $300,000 a year from its casino operations.
Club President Donna Curp said the group raises funds by holding candy sales, bingo nights and other events, but is not coming close to matching its casino revenues.
"We've been kind of holding our own, but we've had to go up on the prices for the children to play the sports," Curp said. She said the organization had to fire its paid executive director and recently depleted its savings to pay for a new boiler.
But Prince George's Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a leading opponent of charity-sponsored gambling, said lawmakers gave nonprofit groups ample notice that they could not depend on gambling forever when they adopted the 1997 "sunset" date in 1995.
Pinsky, a Democrat, said the problems created by gambling outweighed any benefits.
"People were losing their rent and their mortgage money," he said. "It was just too frequent, too much money, and it wasn't going where it should be going."
Exum said he will try to win the county House delegation's backing for the bill when it meets Tuesday to review local legislation. He said he was not sure of its prospects because he has not spoken to colleagues about the issue.
Del. Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the county's House delegation, said he had thought charity gambling was "a dead issue" in view of Glendening's opposition.
"To be quite honest with you, I haven't seen a great groundswell of people coming up and saying we've been devastated," said Baker, a Democrat.
Baker said a majority of the delegation might favor the bill if it n had a chance of becoming law, but he questioned whether lawmakers would want to push the issue in the face of a veto threat. He said that even if the county House and Senate delegations supported the bill, it could run into a roadblock in the House Judiciary Committee.
"I think it's a test of whether the governor is going to stick to his guns," Baker said.
Ray Feldmann, Glendening's press secretary, said yesterday that the governor would veto any effort to bring back charity casinos.
"Those days are over, and there have been far too many abuses and far too many examples of the profits not going to the charities they were intended for," Feldmann said.
Pub Date: 1/02/99