Charities want to add slots for fundraising

As bingo night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Rosedale wound down, Post Commander Henry C. Schminke III sat at a table near the front of the room, took up a pen and began figuring receipts and expenses. Such reckonings have not been kind lately to his organization and others like it across the state.

The turnout of 85 players on a cold Thursday night was respectable, and counting the cash prize payouts, the cost of food and paid help, it seemed Maryland's largest VFW post would be in the black, at least for one night — up about $800.

"That's a good night," said Schminke, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.

He and post quartermaster Jim Shuttlesworth say the balance sheets have been running against them lately, and they're looking toward the General Assembly for some relief. The post holds three bingo games a month, some more profitable than others, and a number of bills pending in the legislature would allow veterans and other organizations to expand raffles and gambling on cards, roulette, slot machines and the Maryland Lottery.

But the head of a key legislative subcommittee has not been encouraging about gambling bills succeeding before all five state-approved slots locations are open, and legislative analysts have raised similar concerns. A few of the bills have been introduced several times before and advanced no further than legislative committee hearings, but organization members are trying to keep hope alive.

"Anything they can do" to help, said Schminke, who has been commander for two years at Charles Evering Post 6506 on Philadelphia Road, which now has just under 2,000 members. "From what I've heard, all the VFWs are in trouble. ...This year has been a struggle just to keep our head above water."

Shuttlesworth, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, said monthly revenues have been about $2,000 short of expenses since November. Crowds for drinks, meals and special events are down, and those who do show up are spending less, he said.

The story is much the same for the American Legion, said Maryland Commander Mike Mooney, whose organization is supporting the local and state slots bills.

"The economy has just really affected all the Legion posts," said Mooney, a member of the post in Parkville, the state's largest with about 2,000 members. "People are just not coming out to eat and drink."

Representatives of the two organizations say they would welcome more revenue from slot machines and from the casino events proposed in a Baltimore County bill introduced by Democratic Dels. James E. Malone Jr. and Steven J. DeBoy Sr. The measure would allow organizations to offer cash prizes at casino nights featuring card games and roulette, changing the current law that allows prizes only in merchandise.

Lawmakers have proposed 10 gambling and raffle measures mentioning charitable organizations, two of which would apply statewide and eight to local jurisdictions. Two bills have been introduced for Prince George's County, and one each for Baltimore, Howard, Carroll, Worcester, Harford and Frederick counties.

Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the statewide gambling measure she's sponsoring is "like a perennial bill" — she has introduced it five or six years straight. The bill would allow veterans', fraternal and religious organizations across Maryland to have up to five slot machines at each post, as such groups in eight Eastern Shore counties have had for 25 years.

Eddie Meyer, the adjutant at American Legion Post 64 in Salisbury, said the machines "are a way of life now. ... If it wasn't for the slot machines, we all would be in very, very bad shape."

The Salisbury post netted about $162,000 from its five slots last year, giving $82,000 to charities and keeping the rest, he said. The law requires the organizations to give at least half their net from slots to charity.

A local bill sponsored by Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., an Ocean City Democrat, would make Worcester the ninth Eastern Shore county to allow these groups to have slot machines.

"Every municipality in Worcester County has supported the [Mathias] bill," said Sarge Garlitz, commander of the American Legion Synepuxent Post No. 166 in Ocean City, who said he's been backing the measure for three years. "I think it's going to happen this year."

The gambling bills meant to help organizations are raising questions about the impact on Maryland's slot machine casino program.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the gambling subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, did not return several phone calls seeking comment. But he said in January that no gambling measures were likely to pass before all five slots casinos already approved by the state were open.

Two slots casinos that have opened since the fall, in Perryville and Ocean Downs, have reported $50.5 million in revenue, the Maryland Lottery Commission has said. Perryville has 1,500 machines, Ocean Downs 750.

The analyses of both slots-related bills prepared by the Department of Legislative Services said each had the potential to reduce revenue from the existing slot machine program, depending in part on how many counties chose to allow the machines once they were authorized by the legislature.

Klausmeier said she could not see how a few machines at VFW and American Legion halls would represent serious competition for the state slots program. Garlitz and other veterans organization members on the Eastern Shore said the slot machines there are only for members and their guests.

The bill analyses report that 52 nonprofits on the Eastern Shore were running slots in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, two-thirds of them veterans groups. Based on reports from 50 organizations, the analysis says the machines netted $6.6 million, averaging about $130,000 per organization.

Many organizations have video poker and other electronic game machines that look like slots, but are not allowed to pay off in cash. At the Rosedale VFW, for instance, seven machines that cost a dime and five that cost a nickel per play issue tickets that can be entered in a raffle for merchandise prizes.

Shuttlesworth said the post's 12 game machines produce about a fifth of the post's annual revenue.

"They are absolutely critical to us," he said. "Without them we're closed."

More slots would help, Shuttlesworth said, adding that "we would love to have" the cash prize casino nights proposed in the Malone-DeBoy Baltimore County bill.

Malone said the organizations seem to have reached the limit of what they can raise with the events they've been holding: "A lot of people are bull-roasted, basket-bingoed, shrimp-feasted out. ... Five years ago you would have a bull roast with 500 people. Five years later that same bull roast is 200 people. So people are hurting."

Around the bingo tables and the game machines in Rosedale last week, most patrons said they were enthusiastic about the prospect of slots and casino games coming to the post.

Margaret Stein of Perry Hall was sitting at a bingo table with her husband, sister and daughter, Kim Molen, who just won the $200 prize in the last game of the night. She said she and her husband, Larry, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, made seven stops at slots casinos up and back on a trip to Ocean City last month. She figures she could find time for playing slots at the casinos and the VFW.

"Oh my goodness, yeah. It's fun," she said.

Marie Cutair of Perry Hall was at the members-only bar having a Bud Light and a bag of potato chips, playing a video poker machine while the bingo game went on in the public room. She was able to join the VFW because her father was a World War II veteran, and figures the casino nights and slots would be good for the post and the veterans, especially elderly members who might have trouble driving to slots casinos some distance away.

"That would be great," she said. "It brings excitement to a lot of these veterans. ... They're on a fixed income. They can have a good time and be with their buddies."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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