Smyk says background helped him tackle gambling, other issues
The first - and sometimes only - job for a freshman legislator is getting up to speed.
For Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, that may have been easier for him than his fellow freshmen. As a retired state trooper, he said his background in law enforcement helped him prepare for what turned into one of the biggest issues this session: gambling operations run by fraternal and veterans organizations.
(Smyk said that experience also helped with what erupted into a huge public safety concern following the mass murder in Newtown, Conn., but that’s another column.)
The story of what is sometimes called “charitable gambling” in Delaware is a long, strange tale. Let’s just say that for decades the state turned a blind eye toward what was illegal gambling.
These organizations came to depend on gambling revenue. It allowed them to hire staff and to give back to the community, said Smyk.
“They put that money back into scholarships, into holiday meals for people,” said Smyk. “There’s a lot of different things they do.”
But last year this illegal, but accepted practice was called into question. John Yeomans, director of the state Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement, began receiving complaints from citizens that their spouses were becoming problem gamblers.
Some said their spouses “were spending almost their entire retirement check in a week,” Smyk said.
Shortly afterward, the division sent a letter telling the organizations to comply with the long-ignored law. This made some people happy. “The casinos kept their hands out of it,” Smyk said, “but they were applauding it, because this is some of the competition.”
But others were upset, which Smyk said he predicted. According to Smyk, the state should have treated the request for compliance as a brand new law. Let the organizations know it was coming. Instead, the state lowered the boom.
Smyk also thinks the governor’s office reacted too slowly once it became apparent the issue needed to be addressed. He pushed for a special session before Christmas to consider legislation but, he said, the idea got no traction.
The temporary bill, signed Jan. 30 by Gov. Jack Markell, requires the organizations to apply to the state for approval to operate “charitable video lottery machines,” in other words, slot machines.
The bill also puts some restrictions on the cut allowed the organizations. Smyk said some of the charitable slot machines paid out only 40 percent of proceeds. This compares, he said, to 87 percent to 94 percent payout at the casino slot machines.
The current, temporary law will sunset at the end of this session to allow for more comprehensive legislation.
Here are some provisions that should be included in the final bill. (The following are my opinions, not what Smyk said.)
• The payout to players should be higher than the 50 percent to 70 percent allowed in the current bill. This could be phased in gradually.
• Since these organizations are granted the extraordinary privilege of running gambling operations, they should be accountable as to how much money actually is returned to the community in the form of scholarships and other worthwhile causes.
• The legislation should address what brought the “charitable gambling” issue to the forefront: problem gamblers.
I realize this is a difficult issue. Do you limit gambling? Do you make organizations responsible for making sure their members don’t bet the rent money?
But the state needs to make some effort. With the current legislation, the state will gets its cut and the fraternal and veterans organizations will get their cut.
The spouses who called for help because their spouses were gambling away their retirement checks? If the final bill mirrors the temporary legislation, they’ll get the shaft.
Smyk described the issue of helping problem gamblers as “paramount.” He said the state should insist that these organizations put out information about the services available for people. That’s the least that should be done.
Because the current bill sunsets June 30, the General Assembly will have to act quickly during what is turning into a very busy session.
Smyk said that’s been his biggest surprise - the amount of legislation coming before the General Assembly this session. “Apparently, this is an unprecedented year,” he said.
Hopefully, in the hustle and bustle of this busy session, the spouses of those problem gamblers won’t be forgotten.
Last week I incorrectly printed the last names of Jose and Virginia Somalo, editors of Hoy en Delaware. My apologies.