On the eve of the close of the Maryland General Assembly session 25 years ago, it was clear legislation that would have allowed regulated slot machine gambling in the clubhouses of fraternal organizations was dead for the year.
Such had been the case in each of the several years leading to the 1990 assembly session, and the same has been true in each session since – even as an array of legal gambling options have gradually come into play.
It's an unfortunate situation. Fraternal organization slot machines have been a windfall for charitable organizations in the counties where they are allowed. Though the organizations themselves benefit from the slot machines in terms of being able to upgrade their facilities, a large portion of the take ends up being given away to other charitable organizations ranging from youth athletic groups to volunteer fire and ambulance companies.
Counties where such gambling is not permitted – Harford long among them – must find other ways to pay for these quality of life amenities, or do without.
By way of background, Maryland has had a rather interesting history with regard to legalized gambling. Before the state lottery was begun in the 1970s, there already had been clubhouse gambling in various southern Maryland and Eastern Shore counties.
Since then, the lottery options have expanded substantially, to where Maryland is part of what are nearly national lottery operations in the form of MegaMillions and PowerBall.
All the while, slot machine gambling was increasingly allowed in the clubhouses of American Legion, VFW and other fraternal organizations. Curiously, while clubhouse gambling was being legalized (or kept illegal) on a county by county basis, it wasn't the county governments that were making the decisions. Gambling regulation in Maryland (like liquor sales regulation) is controlled by the state legislature, but on a county-by-county basis.
To keep the whole legislature from becoming bogged down in debates over the particulars of clubhouse gambling in an individual county, a practice known as "local courtesy" was long used to address issues in a particular county. Under local courtesy, revenue-neutral (no cost) legislation is approved by the full assembly as long as all of the senators and delegates representing the county in question agree with the legislation.
Thus, a single delegate representing a sliver of a county has veto power over local courtesy legislation for that county. The larger the county, in terms of population, the easier it is to find a single dissenter.
For many years through the 1980s and 1990s, the single dissenter rule precluded fraternal house slot machine gambling from becoming reality in Harford County.
Then came the push for public slot machine and casino gambling parlors. It was in the political era when general gambling was part of the annual public debate in Annapolis that the option of legalized clubhouse gambling such has been in place for years in many counties, became a non-starter, even if it would have been approved a few years earlier under local courtesy practices.
Statewide, legalized slots parlor and subsequently casino gambling has not been the budget cure-all that had been predicted; since the legalization of slots parlor and casino gambling, the state has actually increased its sales tax rate.
Seems the statewide windfalls haven't materialized for the government's general fund budget the way community organizations realized increased funding thanks to in-county fraternal club gambling.
Just as was the case 25 years ago, when the Maryland General Assembly session drew to a close this week, no legal gambling options were open to fraternal organizations in Harford County. Now, as it has been for more than a quarter of a century, this is an unfortunate problem for local community organizations that have the potential to benefit from local gambling in local fraternal houses.
The local delegation serving in Annapolis could be forgiven for not making the issue a priority in the first term after an election that resulted in substantial turnover. Next year, however, the issue should be a high priority. While the next General Assembly session may seem a long way off, the modern political realities in Annapolis are such that if such a bill is to be approved in 2016, the groundwork needs to be set in place early. Now that the 2015 session is over, the time to start working on such a project has arrived.