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Central Delaware
Governor, veterans groups seek compromise on video lottery machines
Delaware State News/Dave Chambers
Mike Weaver of Dover spent part of his Friday afternoon hitting the video lottery machines inside Walter L. Fox Post 2 American Legion in Dover. Gov. Jack A. Markell’s office hopes to introduce a bill next week to the General Assembly legalizing the machines which veterans and fraternal groups say return thousands of dollars to the community.

DOVER — The spirit evolved from conspiratorial to cordial as state officials sat down with veterans aiming to continue operating video lottery machines raising money for the community.

Next week, Gov. Jack A. Markell’s office hopes to introduce a bill to the General Assembly floor legalizing the machines that have operated since at least 1974 (according to veterans) at various nonprofit locations.

The legislation would likely enhance state oversight and control of the machines, which has been highly unregulated for nearly four decades of operation.

Delaware’s Non-Profit Coalition of veterans groups has met with Gov. Markell’s Secretary of Finance Tom Cook and Deputy Chief of Staff Gregory Patterson in what’s been described by both sides as respectful and focused on reaching a mutual acceptance of video lottery machines’ place in the Delaware constitution and fraternal organizations, VFWs, American Legion Posts and Moose Lodges.

Mr. Patterson said he couldn’t discuss the gist of upcoming proposed legislation, but said “the goal is to have a bill that can run on the floor in the March session” of General Assembly.

The Governor’s Office is cognizant of the machines impact on local community interests and Mr. Patterson said “It’s a big issue because a lot of people in the community are affected and it’s important to legislators and the people they represent.

“The thing we heard is the loss of revenue leads to the loss of a lot of charitable endeavors.”

Since January, the veterans and state officials have met to discuss goals of continuing operations set to cease on June 30 when House Bill 1 sunsets and shuts down machines.

“Now we have to take this back to our members and try to make the legislators understand how important this is for our communities,” said Walter L. Fox Post 2 Adjutant Jeffrey Crouser, who chairs the veterans coalition.

The meetings at south Dover’s Post 2 on Bay Road have come a long way since last fall, when an initial state shutdown order of the machines sparked verbal political-fueled salvos toward the governor. At the same time, veterans establishments initially kept machines running for a short time after a shutdown went public on Nov. 11, 2012.

The governor deemed the current situation untenable and enforceable by law if machine plugs weren’t unplugged, which veterans groups complied with.

Eventually, the HB 1 emergency order enacted Jan. 30, 2013, stated in part:

“The Department of Finance shall enact regulations on an emergency basis to implement the operation of the charitable video lottery machines for the approved charitable gaming organizations.”

In order to ensure the integrity of this new form of gaming, it is imperative that newly authorized Charitable Video Lottery Agents and Charitable Video Lottery Vendors be held to a standardized set of operational regulations consistent with their business and trade style, the act read.

Balancing state, veterans interests

Since then, the negotiations have centered on finding a permanent solution that’s relative to the state constitution, overseen by the state and still lucrative to community interests.

“Right now the state has continued to work with us and that’s a very positive thing,” said VFW state legislative officer Russ Hall, who has also met recently with U.S. Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Christopher Coons in Washington to further the discussion.

“We believe that Greg Patterson and Tom Cook have been open and honest while keeping an eye to our interests, and the Governor’s Office has been sincere while working for us to draft a bill.”

Also joining the Feb. 25 meeting was Tom Jones, the judge advocate for the AmVets Department of Delaware.

Mr. Hall said that there is a “90 percent” agreement on the crux of the bill, with work to be done on how the state controls machines and how much revenue is invested back into the community through charity programs.

According to Mr. Hall, there’s still discussion on how much the state will keep from video lottery machine revenue, and how much goes back to specific civic programs. Mr. Hall said a possible 40 percent return to the people would mirror a similar Maryland gaming law.

Also, the intrinsic value of a legion post where members gather to support a nonprofit and plans community donations needs to be measured through the split, Mr. Hall said.

“Our members gather at a location and volunteer hours and hours of service based in large part by having a place to meet,” Mr. Hall said.

While Mr. Hall said he hoped the bill would hit the floor running and be passed quickly, he noted that recent developments involving Wilmington-area nonprofits possible inclusion into the proceedings may delay the process.

Dissenting debate evolves

The emergency act breezed through the state House of Representatives and Senate, with only one dissenting vote cast in each chamber on Jan. 23 and 24. Gov. Markell signed the bill on Jan. 30.

Rep. Helene M. Keeley, D-Wilmington South and Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark voted “no” to temporary legislation.

Rep. Keeley was concerned that longstanding Wilmington neighborhood social club’s video machines weren’t under the temporary law’s scope. The smaller city clubs — more than 50 in her district — still make charitable interests a priority, the representative said.

“I was concerned at the time about why we were treating certain clubs different than others,” Rep. Keeley said.

“I understand that the veteran’s organizations are trying to help their folks, but I couldn’t support a bill that wasn’t helping the people of Wilmington as well who have the same interests.”

Rep. Keeley said she’s been encouraged with ongoing meetings and hopes that her hometown interests will be included in upcoming legislation.

Mr. Crouser said Fox Post has annually provided approximately $100,000 per year for local organization support, from a battered women’s home to Cub Scouts and wounded veterans support.

The donations will be threatened if a shutdown of the machines occurs, along with smaller posts shuttered and jobs lost operating venues, the coalition said.

“We cannot forget that our objectives are charity for the weak and voiceless in our communities and to pay our bills,” said Mr. Hall, a West Point graduate and former Army colonel.

“We don’t feel we want to trumpet our giving, because it is our duty and moral obligation. We do not want to be mini-casinos.”

Organizations in the coalition include the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Fraternal Order of Elks, Moose, AmVets and DelVets.

Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or canderson@newszap.com

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Follow @DSNAnderson on Twitter

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