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Panel hears of hodgepodge of Maryland gambling laws

In Carroll County, betting on billiards is illegal — unless the game is held in a senior center on a day other than Sunday and the prize is capped at $5.

Those rules are part of the hodgepodge of regulations enshrined in Title 13 of Maryland's criminal code. It governs local gambling operations, ranging from tip jars in Western Maryland to slot machines at Eastern Shore veterans' halls to commercial bingo in Calvert County.

The staff of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency laid out the issue of inconsistent and confusing local laws Thursday at the first meeting of a new General Assembly committee charged with oversight of gambling in Maryland.

With bingo, for instance, 17 counties have 17 separate provisions of state law governing the games. Anne Arundel and Calvert have significantly different rules governing commercial bingo. Prince George's and Carroll, alone in the state, allow bingo games in senior centers.

While the panel could recommend legislation to bring consistency to the state's gambling practices, one of its leaders expressed reluctance to venture into an area in which local governments jealously guard their prerogatives.

"The local jurisdictions are really sensitive about those issues. They hold those revenues dear," said Sen. Nancy J. King, the committee's Senate co-chair. King, a Montgomery County Democrat, noted that some Maryland counties dedicate the funds to youth sports and other such programs.

Her House counterpart, Del. Eric Luedtke, said it would be a "difficult battle" to impose state rules on gambling but expressed an interest In seeing that the various games are being run appropriately.

"It's been legislation by accretion. These provisions have been added bit by bit for many years, so they end up convoluted," said Luedtke, also a Montgomery Democrat.

Jaclyn Vincent, the lottery agency's director of gambling research, attempted to guide committee members through the thicket of laws. She described a local gambling scene that includes paddle wheels, wheels of fortune, charity casino nights and punchboards.

"It's like an onion is the best way to describe it," she said.

The various games in many cases predate the state's commercial casinos — four of which are open with two more on the way. Those establishments are regulated by the state and are allowed to offer slot machines and table games such as poker, blackjack and craps.

Most of the alternate forms of gambling regulated at the local level are sponsored by charities, though commercial bingo operations are permitted in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.

Vincent said the lottery agency, which gained sweeping new regulatory authority under casino expansion legislation passed in 2012, frequently receives calls from people who want to know whom to contact to get a permit for a raffle or other fundraiser. Often, she said, agency officials have no idea which agency regulates which games in the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

Each of the jurisdictions allows some form of gambling, according to a table prepared by the agency. Most allow gambling events by religious, charitable, fraternal, civic and veterans' organizations, as well as volunteer fire companies, but Vincent said those terms are poorly defined and inconsistent from county to county. A few counties allow groups such as rescue squads, hospitals and ambulance companies to sponsor betting events. In many cases, Vincent said, the charities and other groups do not have to be located or spend their proceeds in the county where the games take place.

Because reporting requirements vary, she said, the agency has a hard time determining the impact the casinos are having on local gambling operations.

Nearly 30 states have some form of statewide oversight of charitable gambling, according to the agency, but King expressed skepticism about whether Maryland should join them.

"Is this such a bad thing that every county does it differently?" she asked.

In the end, the committee agreed that the agency staff should continue to gather information. But none of the members proposed any effort to impose uniformity.

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