For years, Baltimore has been shortchanged tens of millions of dollars in amusement tax revenue from unlicensed video poker machines in bars and other businesses and the alleged illegal gambling that occurs. City Councilman Robert W. Curran has come up with an inventive plan to beat the businesses at their own larcenous game. He wants to exclude the machines from the state's 10 percent amusement tax and instead charge a $3,000 fee per machine. Now there's a jackpot.
Mr. Curran is expected to introduce a bill into the City Council tomorrow that proposes the new fee structure, which he says could generate $5 million or more in revenue for the city each year. The potential payoff, if Mr. Curran's estimates are correct, would surely help the city lower its property tax rate, or better equip recreation centers, or offset police overtime costs. But the legislation is certain to meet stiff opposition from the owners of gas stations, convenience stores, bars and other businesses where an estimated 2,198 licensed video poker machines are found. When businesses sought City Council approval to increase the number of licensed machines in the city in 2006, they had plenty of support.
Mr. Curran's strategy is this: A hefty fee on the video poker machines would give the city a shot at recouping the money lost because of the unlicensed machines and the illegal gambling that reportedly occurs. A 2006 examination by the Abell Foundation estimated that the city was losing as much as $10 million a year in uncollected admission and amusement taxes.
Imposing Mr. Curran's fee could reduce the number of machines in the city, but even if there were only 1,000, the city's take from fees would be $3 million - that's twice what Baltimore received in amusement tax revenue in 2006, for example.
That's a bonanza Mr. Curran's colleagues would be hard-pressed to ignore.