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January 23, 2014

Bigger prizes may be jackpot for Indiana charity bingos

INDIANAPOLIS — Bingo players in church basements and American Legion around Indiana halls could hit much bigger jackpots this summer if legislators raise the limits on prize money.

A bill passed by the Senate Public Policy Committee would raise the limit on cash prizes from $599 to $15,000 for individual games, and boost the top prize to $30,000 for the “super” bingo games that hundreds of nonprofit groups use to raise money.

The legislation comes after a nearly $100 million drop in the amount raised from bingo and other charity gaming over the past five years, amid heavier competition for gambling dollars.

“We really think by raising the prize limits, we can make charity gaming more competitive,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg.

Bigger prizes would, for instance, answer the prayers of parishioners of St. Louis Catholic Church in Batesville. Up until two years ago, the church’s bingo games generated about $200,000 a year in profits — all of which went to help local families pay tuition at the church school.

Bingo revenue is down almost 35 percent. Church members blame the unlimited bingo prizes in some neighboring states, and Indiana’s two-year-old smoking ban, which exempted casinos but covered bingo halls.

“We’ve lost hundreds of players,” said Whitey Weberding, who helps run the bingo games. “They say, ‘I like smoking and I like playing bingo. But if I can’t smoke, I’m not coming.’”  

Five-figure prize money could convince some people to snuff out their smokes long enough to come back to play, said Weberding.

“We’ve got three casinos within an hour’s drive from us,” he said. “That’s a lot of competition.”

Lawmakers capped bingo prize money after the state began regulating charitable gaming in 1994. The caps were intended to keep unscrupulous operators from moving into the state and squeezing out churches and charities.

Charitable gaming — which includes bingos, raffles and pull tabs — raises only about $4 million a year for the state, through fees charged to game operators.

But it raises millions of dollars for churches and nonprofits.

Ed Feigenbaum, who produces the Indiana Gaming Insight newsletter, said charitable gaming made more than $500 million in gross revenues every year from 1997 to 2009.

The plunge started in 2010. By last year, the 3,200 charities and churches licensed for gambling pulled in about $450 million — dramatically down from the high-water mark of $585 million in 2000.

Bingo alone generated $425 million in gross revenues for nonprofits in 2007. By last year, that figure had dropped to $187 million. The decline is in part because of tougher rules imposed by the state, which have decreased the number of bingo operators.

Butch Snook, of the American Legion Post 11 in Lafayette, feels the impact. Working with a neighboring post, his organization has raised money through bingo to donate about $100,000 a year to various causes, from the Boy Scouts to American Legion baseball.

That’s getting harder to do, he said.

“It’s imperative that we get some changes made to the system,” Snook said.

Feigenbaum said the drop in charitable gaming parallels a decline in casino gaming.

He recently reported that Indiana’s casino tax revenues are falling faster than expected — almost 15 percent over the past six months. That follows four years of falling revenues.

The trend hits state coffers hard. Last year, the State of Indiana collected about $752 million in gaming tax revenues, down from nearly $1 billion five years ago.

Feigenbaum is convinced Hoosiers are still shaking off a tough recession.

“Gaming in all forms in Indiana is facing competitive and economic pressures,” he said. “There is a lot of competition for discretionary dollars and fewer of those discretionary dollars to go around.”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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