DOVER — State House members on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill fast-tracked by the Markell administration in response to complaints from fraternal organization and veterans groups who were told to stop operating illegal slot machines.
The bill, approved on 34-1 vote and sent to the Senate, allows the groups to resume slot machine gambling until June 30 while lawmakers work on a permanent measure allowing the groups to offer legal gambling.
Veterans groups and fraternal organizations such as the Moose and Elks complained after receiving cease-and-desist letters from the Markell administration in November reminding them that they were violating the law by operating the slot machines.
In response, the administration began talks to appease the politically active groups, while continuing to crack down on other Delawareans engaged in similar activities.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security announced the arrest of a Selbyville restaurant manager on charges of having an illegal gambling device after agents said they found two electronic gambling machines made available for certain patrons. Last week, DSHS announced the similar arrest of a Hockessin man in connection with the alleged operation of an illegal gambling device at a Wilmington service station.
But when asked last week how many arrests had been made and machines seized related to the illegal gambling by fraternal organizations, DSHS spokeswoman Kim Chandler simply answered "none."
Markell spokeswoman Cathy Rossi would not explain why the administration seemed to be enforcing the law differently.
"The governor does not make arrests or direct the prosecution priorities for the state police, local law enforcement or the attorney general, and the governor did not send the cease and desist letter or have knowledge ahead of time that that it was going to be sent," Rossi said in an email Wednesday.
Markell, who oversees the state police, nevertheless worked with Democratic House members to quickly pass a bill allowing the fraternal organizations to resume gambling.
"I can't believe I'm standing here supporting organizations that were doing something illegal," Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said Wednesday after House members suspended rules to take up the bill.
At the same time, Keeley complained that Wilmington has many small civic clubs and organizations that do charitable work but are not covered under the bill.
"They do the exact same things but yet they are not included in this temporary fix. ... It's not right," she said.
While the fraternal clubs argued that they used proceeds from the illegal gambling to fund charitable activities, they also warned that some organizations may have to close their doors if the gambling ban remains in place, suggesting that they were using the money for operating expenses.
State Finance Secretary Tom Cook acknowledged that the bill approved Wednesday allows fraternal organizations to use gambling proceeds to pay for operating expenses.
As written, the bill applies to fraternal or veterans organization with national affiliations or whose membership consists primarily of veterans or active duty service members.
Organizations would be allowed to have up to 20 slot machines and would have to pay between 50 percent and 70 percent of total annual proceeds to players, less than the 92 percent payout required of the state's three casinos.
Of the remaining proceeds, the state would receive 43.5 percent.