Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lawmakers push ban on electronic bingo

The state budget crawl drags on, but on some things the Legislature can still hustle.

Lawmakers are moving fast on a bill that would help gaming tribes, churches and some big nonprofit groups, but smaller bingo charities fear it will dry up their fundraising lifeblood.

The bill, SB1369, would ban electronic bingo games that a growing number of charities now operate in murky legal waters, games that casino tribes say violate their statewide monopoly on slot machines. In exchange, charities could link multiple facilities across California for weekly paper bingo games that could generate what one backer described as "life-altering prizes." Some say those prizes could exceed $100,000, compared with the $250 top prize per game state law now permits.

The Assembly passed the bill 56-3 Wednesday. It could reach the Senate floor as early as today.

A compromise between casino tribes and major charities, the bill draws support from the California Conference of Bishops, American Legion, Elks and other big nonprofit groups. Smaller bingo charities, meanwhile, say it would strip them of their electronic games and send their paper bingo players chasing after bigger prizes.

"It kills my electronic and it kills my paper," said David Gibbs, executive director of the Concord Blue Devils, the acclaimed drum-and-bugle corps that nets about $800,000 in bingo revenue each year — most of its fundraising revenue. "Across the state, hundreds Advertisementand hundreds of charities are going to be driven out of business."

The legislation, which appeared last week, owes its speed to threats from some tribes to withhold tens of millions of dollars in casino revenue that they agreed to give the state in exchange for more slot machines, if the state fails to rid bingo halls of machines that in some cases mimic slots.

"It's been growing by leaps and bounds. If you're going to cut it off, better to cut it off now rather than wait another year," said Alison Harvey, executive director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which includes tribes that agreed to share a hunk of casino revenue in exchange for more slots.

In May, state agents issued letters to 15 bingo halls across California, threatening to seize hundreds of machines that Attorney General Jerry Brown had deemed illegal. A leading machinemaker led a legal challenge, and a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the state enforcement.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, would ban electronic bingo and double the top prize for a single paper bingo game to $500. It also would draw $5 million from a special fund for nongaming tribes to ease the initial pain for some charities that will be forced to give up electronic bingo. And it would allow as many as 10 independent bingo charities to join forces to run the new "remote-caller" games.

"It's not like we're delighted they're being put under this stress," said Ken Larsen of the California Association of Nonprofits, a sponsor of the bill. "But it seems to be a way to help smooth the transition and keep them from being thrown under the bus."

But Gibbs, of the Blue Devils, said charities like his could never generate enough new players to make remote-caller bingo profitable. Opponents of the bill say the pooled games would expand statewide gambling and could crimp State Lottery revenues.

Questioning the rush, Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, cast one of the three no votes. But Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, said the tribes' threat makes waiting too risky.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not comment on pending legislation, a spokeswoman said.

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