Veterans groups among those who will rally in Dover

By Tony E. Windsor

In November, military veteran organizations and other non-profit groups in Delaware received notification that the state police would begin enforcing a law prohibiting the use of video slot machines as a source of entertainment and revenue at their facilities.

Given the immense funding opportunities lost due to this prohibition, non-profits are working with state legislators attempting to find a resolution that can hopefully allow them to maintain the slot machines.

On January 10, at 1 p.m., a rally is being held outside of Legislative Hall in Dover seeking to support legislative action to give those non-profits that support military veteran causes and community charity, the right to continue using slot machines and other "games of chance" to raise funds. Members of the Seaford Loyal Order of Moose and Seaford Elks Lodge are planning to support the rally and have members traveling to Dover Thursday, Jan. 10.

Around Veteran's Day organizations began receiving letters from the state informing them that they were in violation of the slot machine law. The letter came with signatures from the Director of Delaware's Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement and the Superintendent of the Delaware State Police; both agencies operate under the umbrella of the state Division of Safety and Homeland Security

The letter explained that the Delaware State Police were aware that a "number of social organizations, clubs and businesses" have allowed patrons to play gambling devises, including slot machines. The letter than urged the American Legion to "remove these machines or face significant liability."

According to the state's definition, a gambling device includes any machine in which a coin or token is inserted and, depending on the elements of chance, something of value may be dispensed. That value does not have to be cash, it can also include tickets, coupons or tokens that are redeemable for something of value. "If you have gambling devices on your premises and you are permitting gambling to occur, you are in legal jeopardy," the letter stated.

The state has warned military veteran groups and other social clubs and non-profits that not only are the organizations in danger of having the games confiscated; they are also being threatened with the loss of their liquor license.

Shortly after receiving the letter, the Laurel American Legion Post 19 cleared out its slot machines. Post 19 Commander Richard "Gary" Banks said he has distributed information about the upcoming rally in Dover, but he does not plan to be in attendance himself. "I support what the rally stands for, but I would rather work behind the scenes with state legislators to seek a resolution," he said. Banks has been in contact with several legislators including Rep. Tim Dukes and Sen. Bob Venables. He has also spoken to politicians representing the Dover and Milford areas.

"Everyone I have talked to seems to be very supportive of what we are trying to do," he said. "I know there are some efforts to draft legislation directed at trying to get the slot machines back. However, it is necessary to make sure that the legislation is written in a way that is fair to everyone."

Like other non-profits who have been affected by the loss of revenue from losing the slot machines, Post 19, is feeling the impact significantly. "At our December meeting the members voted to suspend donations until we get some resolution on the issue," Banks said. "December is normally a big month for us in terms of donations but this year we gave out nothing and will not in the coming months unless something changes."

He said the loss in revenue has also impacted the American Legion's ability to operate normally. "We have cut our hours of operation in half and have had to lay off one full time bartender and a part time bartender will only be used for special occasions. In addition, all improvements to the post home have been put on hold with the only maintenance expenditures being for emergency repairs."

Banks said Post 19 is also reviewing all special community events sponsored by the organization and may be making some changes in the future based on loss of revenue. He said there is consideration being given to closing the Post's kitchen and scaling back on traditional community events. At risk of being cut by the Legion are such services as placing U.S. flags on veterans' grave sites and events including the annual Easter Egg Hunt and the Memorial Day and Veterans Day services, and involvement in the annual 4th of July activities.

"To be honest, everything is on the table to be curtailed if necessary," Banks said. "Even with these cutbacks we are still operating at a loss and it is only a matter of time before we have to consider whether we will be able to continue operations at Post 19. Our goal right now is to keep Post 19 open and if possible, return to helping the local community with donations. This is all dependent on whether we can resume our traditional fundraising to support it."

Banks said Post 19, like many other veterans centers, provides an outlet of entertainment and fellowship for its members. However he said there is an even bigger mission at stake. "We are much more than just a bunch of old veterans sitting around the Legion drinking beer," he said. "We truly believe that we are an important part of our community and are very passionate about what we do in supporting veterans and the local area. We believe that charity should begin at the local level and many times our support is the best, if not only, source available to many in need."

The rally planned for Jan. 10, is a way for legislators to see how important it is for area non-profits to have access to the slot machines in order to continue providing support to area charities. In an e-mail sent from the Seaford Moose, supporters are encouraged to be a part of the event. "We are holding this rally to seek support from the Legislators. We plan this to be a peaceful gathering to get the support we need. This is not the fault of the Legislators. At this point they are on our side so let's keep them there," the memo stated. Bill Trice, Administrator for the Seaford Moose Lodge, said the los of slots is curtailing the group's ability to fund community service projects. "We have dinners and other activities to help support the operations and maintenance at the lodge, so the lion's share of the slot machine money goes to community service," he said. "We have been forced to table contributions to many of our projects. At least two of our major projects have not been fudned. We have been a supporter of Seaford High School sports program, but had to pull out when we lost the slot machine revenue."

Trice said he feels most people understand the need for the state to regulate the slot machines that operate throughout Delaware, but he hopes something happens soon to allow the machines back in service. He has attended meetings, including one with House Rep. Danny Short, who is seeking input regarding the non-profit slot machine issue.

Wayne English, of the Seaford Elks Lodge, said he also operates Atlantic Bingo Supply, out of Maryland, and is concerned about the impact losing the gaming opportunities is having on area non-profits. "My interest on the charitable gaming market is to find solutions to the problems where the clubs and the state can possibly, control or regulate these type of machines. I am hoping that a lot of the organizations that are being affected are sending representatives to Dover this week to keep this issue on the front burner," he said.

One of the legislators who is wasting no time in attempting to find a way to get the slot machines back into the veterans' facilities is State Sen. Bob Venables. On Sunday might Venables said he has been in contact with State Sen. Norm Conaway, a Maryland legislator from Wicomico County. Maryland has had laws regulating gambling machines for non-profit organizations since 1984. "I am looking at Maryland's law and having our attorney draft some legislation that can be a starting place for us," he said. "I am confident that if I can get some support we will have something that can allow groups like the American Legion to get the slot machines back. These groups are vital to our communities and provide a lot of different charity resources." According to Venables, the Maryland law creates a system which dictates that each video gambling device must be licensed each year at a cost of $50 per machine. The organization must also agree that at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the slots are going to charity.

In what may by some seem almost ironic, Delaware recently became the first state in the country to sanction online gambling. While the state moved aggressively in November to begin forcing slot machines out of veterans' organizations and other non-profit groups, a new law signed into effect in June, will allow Delawareans the opportunity to play slots and roulette on their computers and possibly smartphones.

While no date has been set to start taking bets, online gambling is expected to start in The First State sometimes in 2013. New Jersey lawmakers have recently sent online gambling legislation to the Governor in an attempt to beat Delaware to the punch.

Venables said the recent attack on veterans groups and non-profits that use slot machines to fund charities is unfair and somewhat hypocritical on the part of the state. "I think it is shameful that there have been efforts to take the slot machines out of places like the American Legion," he said. "When we look at the fact that we are now the first state to support online gambling I have to question what more we can do to make money off gambling."

Venables said he and House Rep. John Atkins have plans to have non-profit slot machine legislation drafted in the Senate as a January priority.

He is optimistic that it will gain support and he hopes that something will be done to address the issue early on.

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