Editorial: Drinking and gambling

A strange quirk of Maryland's governance is the degree to which the state legislature needs to act on certain laws that really should be the sovereign responsibility of the counties.

For example, thanks to the latest version of what has become the annual special session of the Maryland General Assembly, Harford County's veterans organizations are now permitted to operate slot machines in their post homes. It may seem like a logical bit of rider legislation to include gambling permission for these not-for-profit organizations in a statewide gambling law, but the reality is gambling for American Legion and VFW post homes has been decided on a county-by-county basis by the state legislature on many occasions in the past.

The veterans organizations in Harford County have been seeking state approval for slot machines for decades, going back well into the 1980s if not before that. Many years back, long before slots parlors started being billed as the knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of the Maryland horse racing industry, post homes in neighboring Cecil County got permission to operate slot machines, on the condition that a high percentage of the take was given away for community service projects.

Many a charity organization in Cecil County has since benefited from the Legion and VFW posts having slot machines, ranging from the Boys and Girls Clubs to the various volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

Not only have Harford-based charities missed out on donations veterans groups over the years since the Cecil County operations got permission for slot machines, but also the Harford posts have reported membership losses to Cecil posts.

The veterans who are active in local organization haves been lobbying state delegates and senators from Harford for many years, pointing out the benefits that have been realized in Cecil as well as the problem with membership they have seen, all to no avail. More about why shortly.

Then comes the special session. Snake-bit by the allure of easy money, state officials and large corporate interests come up with a casino plan, and start trying to put together enough votes to get it enacted. It is approved by a one-vote margin, and slots parlors for most VFW and legion posts across the state are one of the incentives added to the bill to draw in legislative support.

So now the vets posts in Harford will be allowed to operate slot machines. Better late than never.

Unfortunately, the quirk in the system that made it impossible for an organized group of people who served their country to get permission to operate slot machines in their semi-private club houses, remains a key bit of byzantine bureaucracy that has largely outlived its usefulness. The quirk is known as "local courtesy," a tradition in the Maryland General Assembly whereby if a majority of the delegates and senators representing a particular county are in agreement about a provision in a state law that affects only that county, and the provision's change is revenue neutral for the state, the whole of the legislature will go along with the change.

This tradition probably made more sense when Maryland's counties were locally managed by boards of county commissioners, which had limited authority to pass local laws, but these days it has at least two major flaws.

The first of the flaws is simply the practical reality that if a law is only going to affect a particular county, the legislative authority to enact or adopt that kind of law should be in the hands of the county council or county commissioners, not the state legislature.

A second, and more democratically existential, flaw is that local courtesy gives an extraordinary amount of authority to individual legislators when it comes to blocking local courtesy legislation. Over the years, for example, though Harford County has been represented by as many as three senators and eight to nine delegates, it has been possible for a single senator or delegate to block slot machines for legions. Not only has it been possible, but such legislation has been notoriously blocked by a succession of local legislators.

By contrast, had the matter come before the seven-member Harford County Council, it would have taken four votes to get the matter resolved. In other words, a single senator or delegate has more authority to block certain kinds of local-only legislation than three members of the county council combined.

It's worth noting that a key element of the local courtesy tradition relates to the confusing laws governing the sale of alcoholic beverages in Maryland. Though the liquor laws are all part of the same state article, each section has a dizzying array of very specific provisions that apply to anywhere from a single county, a few counties or, in rare cases, all the counties. A disturbing number of the bills taken up each year by the state legislature are county-specific local courtesy measures that deal with liquor laws, sometimes with regard to the way they apply to a particular business or individual license holder.

Holding sway over the various permutations of liquor laws as they apply to individual counties is a source of a fair amount of political authority. And, many liquor license holders have the financial wherewithal to make fairly substantial campaign contributions.

As a result, there's every reason to believe that the local courtesy tradition of state legislative control over county-specific laws will be retained, especially as long as liquor laws are at the heart of the tradition. This has the potential to be an unfortunate impediment to the counties' ability to enact the will of the people, a potential that was realized for decades with the blocking of Harford's veterans organizations from having slot machines.

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