DOVER, Delaware — A bill allowing veterans groups and fraternal organizations to operate slot machines cleared the Senate on Tuesday after lawmakers added a controversial amendment expanding its scope.
The legislation stems from an effort by the Markell administration and lawmakers to appease veterans groups and fraternal organizations after they were told late last year to stop their illegal slots operations.
The Senate voted 15-2 on Tuesday for a bill that makes permanent interim measures that lawmakers hurriedly adopted earlier this year allowing veterans organizations and fraternal groups with national affiliations, such as the Moose and Elks, to resume slots gambling.
The amendment added Tuesday expands the list of eligible organizations to include longstanding local "fraternal benefit societies" not affiliated with national groups. Those societies include groups like the St. Anthony's Club and St. Gabriel Lodge in New Castle County.
"We should be considering looking at supporting our local clubs," said Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle and the amendment's sponsor.
Senate president pro tem Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, said she didn't think the opportunity for offering slots gambling should be restricted to "the ones who were breaking the law in the first place."
But Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, chief sponsor of the underlying bill, argued that "an aggressive proliferation" of club gambling would serve no one's interests.
Representatives of Delaware's casino industry didn't take issue with Bushweller's bill, which would have restricted gambling to about 40 veterans and fraternal lodges, but were taken aback by the amendment.
"We're just concerned about the unknown, and the unknown is, 'How many more?'" said Ed Sutor of Dover Downs.
But the amendment restricts the eligibility of fraternal benefit societies, which are defined in the state insurance code as operating for "social, intellectual, educational, charitable, benevolent, moral, fraternal, patriotic or religious purposes" for the benefit of members that may also be extended to others. To be eligible for slots gambling, any such society must have been in existence for at least 75 years and must be exempt, as a private club, from the state's indoor smoking ban.
Representatives of the American Legion and American Veterans, or AMVETS, were not happy with the amendment, saying the fraternal benefit societies were piggybacking as "free riders" on the work done by veterans groups to get the legislation passed.
As written, the bill restricts slots gambling to an eligible organization's active members. The organizations would have to return at least 60 percent and no more than 86 percent of slots proceeds on an annual average basis to the players. The remaining portion would be split between the organization and the state, with the state keeping 40 percent. The organizations would have to use at least 40 percent of their net winnings for charitable purposes, which the bill says can include "supplies, equipment and facilities that benefit the communities...."