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More slots equal more work

OCEAN CITY — Once inside, the first sound you hear at American Legion Post No. 166 here is the electronic jingle of slot machines.

American Legion Post No. 166 in Ocean City has operated five slot machines since last summer, when the General Assembly approved the machines for all nonprofit veterans’ halls in Worcester County.

The post has operated five machines, lined in a neat row to the left of the entrance, since last summer, when the General Assembly approved slots at all nonprofit veterans’ halls in Worcester County, adding the jurisdiction to a list that included every other Eastern Shore county.

Thanks to some final-hours vote trading during last week’s special session, every post in the state except those in Montgomery County can have similar machines starting Jan. 1.

But the state agency in charge of overseeing those machines will have to make adjustments before American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the rest of Maryland can offer electronic gambling in their halls.

“It’s certainly something that was discussed [in previous years],” said Stephen L. Martino, director of the Maryland State Lottery Agency. “But I did not know it was something that was being considered for the bill that was being discussed with the special session until [last] Tuesday.”

Until Tuesday night, Martino said the lottery was only planning for the implementation of table games at six state casinos, assuming voters approved that expansion in a fall referendum.

Now, Martino has to add veterans’ machines into the mix — a gambling expansion that is not subject to voter approval, and becomes legal on Oct. 1. The machines would be hooked into the lottery’s central computer system, just like casino slot machines, so revenue can be monitored in real time.

“It means that we’ve got more work to do,” Martino said. “We’ll need a little more staff.”

Allowing what could be several hundred electronic bingo machines — different from slots only because winners are predetermined, not chosen through random number generation — was not something given serious public consideration before the special session convened.

But needing 71 votes to pass the legislation in the House of Delegates, Democratic leaders of the chamber made a deal with House veterans’ advocates. An amendment allowing the machines helped the bill carry the House by the minimum vote total, setting up a swift approval in the gambling-friendly Senate.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, left little doubt about the amendment’s importance when asked Tuesday if it was vital to passage of the gambling bill.

“Yes, it was,” he said.

Now, Martino and his agency are left to figure out how to implement a new and unexpected mandate. But he said the agency, soon to be reconstituted as the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, would not let the extra work become a distraction, so long as it was provided the resources necessary to take on the extra responsibility.

“We’re not going to take our attention away from something else,” Martino said. “We’re fairly adept at walking and chewing gum.”

Under the expansion, veterans groups receiving the similar electronic bingo machines keep 5.5 percent of the gross revenue from machines. Starting in 2014, 10 percent of what is left after paying the lottery’s expenses and diverting money to Maryland Stadium Facilities Fund will go to the Maryland Veterans Trust Fund.

At Post No. 166 in Ocean City, slot machines have been an important fundraising mechanism, said post Commander Bill Wolf, a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Air Force.

“It’s been great, it really has been a great help,” he said. “I think the big thing for us is being able to give back more to the community. Prior to this, the only thing we had [was] bingo and fundraisers. But with the slots, it’s really, really great.”

Wolf, a member at Post No. 166 since 2002, said before slots, the post would donate about $40,000 a year to local charities and nonprofit groups. With slots, that jumped to $79,000.

The Ocean City post may be an outlier, Wolf said, because it attracts so many visitors during the tourist season. But he said other posts might enjoy a similar windfall once they start operating their electronic bingo machines, which create the same playing experience as slot machines.

“I think its going to be good for the posts, its going to help them,” Wolf said.

Veterans organizations across the state have struggled to maintain membership as a younger generation of military members have not joined in large numbers, said Thomas L. Davis, adjutant for The American Legion Department of Maryland.

“What we’re finding is that, by and large, people are not participating as they once did several years ago in clubs,” Davis said. “Even though there’s a greater number of potential members there, the participation is not what it used to be.”

He said allowing the gambling machines would capitalize on revenue from a diminishing base, encourage existing members to become more involved and perhaps draw in new ones. Getting the machines could be an enormous boon for individual posts, he said.

“We’ve been fighting for this for 10 years,” Davis said.

The fight continued into this year’s regular session of the legislature. A pair of bills sponsored by the Harford County delegation to the House of Delegates and Senate would have allowed veterans organizations in the county to operate five slot machines each.

The House version, HB 780, received a hearing in the Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 27, but was never voted on. The Senate version, SB 804, was assigned to the Rules Committee and never given a shot for passage.

Even at the start of the legislature’s second special session, allowing veterans organizations outside the Eastern Shore to operate slot machines was out of the question. Del. Kathryn L. Afzali, R-Frederick, offered an amendment that authorized the machines during a meeting of the Finance Resources Subcommittee on Aug. 13, but the offering was shot down by the panel, comprised mostly of Democrats.

In a letter to supporters, Afzali said the amendment came into play on Aug. 14, during House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s frantic search for the 71 votes needed to pass the gambling bill.

“In desperation, realizing the [governor’s] gaming bill would fail, leadership called an emergency meeting of the Veterans Caucus and was able to get more votes in exchange for veterans gaming machines,” Afzali wrote.

Del. Joseph J. “Sonny” Minnick, D-Baltimore County, offered the amendment, and Del. Frank S. Turner, D-Howard, who chairs the subcommittee that deals with gambling issues, agreed to accept the change.

Minnick, who chairs the Maryland Veterans Caucus, said during debate that the amendment may be the “only shot at ever getting anything for the veterans.”

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Upper Shore Republican who chairs the Tea Party Caucus, said in an interview Friday that the amendment was blatant, and successful, vote-grabbing.

“It was an attempt to give some people the cover to say that they actually achieved something,” said Smigiel, who voted for the amendment, but against the gambling bill.

The only jurisdiction that came away without the expansion of electronic gambling to veterans’ organizations was Montgomery County. Barve, the House majority leader who represents part of Montgomery County, said veterans gambling was not something the delegation could support without first discussing it with the County Council.

When the amendment came into play with little warning, Barve said Montgomery lawmakers had little choice but to ask to be excluded.

“It’s a significant change in the law, and I’m not prepared [to vote for it],” Barve said. “I don’t think Montgomery County should do that without crossing all the ‘t’’s and dotting all the ‘i’’s. Montgomery County would be pretty mad if we did this.”

Elsewhere, the expansion efforts have already begun, as the lottery agency studies how it will implement the machines while preparing for the massive addition of table games to the state’s commercial casinos.

Martino, the lottery’s director, said it was unclear how much the agency needed — in terms of staffing and money — to get the job done.

“We haven’t had those conversations yet,” he said.