Scoppe: This isn’t your grandfather’s raffle

Associate EditorMay 21, 2012 

Originally published Wednesday, February 16, 2011

WHEN LEGISLATORS start talking about allowing churches and other charities to hold raffles , my mind conjures up an image of something akin to what my church used to hold:

The raffle and luncheon was held after Mass, in the fellowship hall. The event committee prepared lunch and purchased a roll of raffle tickets and a few prizes; parishioners donated more prizes, and then paid $1, $5 and $10 for tickets, which they placed in plastic cups in front of the items they hoped to win. After lunch, someone drew a ticket from each cup, children distributed the prizes, we put all the proceeds into our scholarship fund, and everyone went home. (It was only after I had sat through a confusing planning meeting, prepared food and purchased tickets at the event that I realized that the “tricky tray” was actually an illegal raffle ; when I told the organizers why I couldn’t be associated with such an event in the future, they decided our church couldn’t be either.)

Now clear your mind of that innocent image, and let me explain what the state Senate had in mind when it passed legislation last week (S.255) allowing “charity games”:

The events could be held in venues built for the sole purpose of hosting them. Although the charities would have to “conduct” the raffle themselves, they could rent “ raffle equipment” and hire “a person to operate equipment.” This likely would be an employee of one of the businesses that would pop up to provide complete raffle packages, reminiscent of today’s “charitable” bingo operations — furnishing not only the venue but also “entertainment related costs, such as disc jockeys, music bands, auctioneers, waiters, bartenders, and wait staff,” food and beverages, the prizes themselves, security, bookkeeping, accounting and legal services and clean-up.

Among the “entertainment” options that could be included in the events are “roulette, blackjack, poker, baccarat, or other card games, or dice games” — so long as there are “no prizes, financial rewards, or incentives received by players.”

Ninety percent of the net proceeds would go to the charitable sponsor, which could easily mean only pennies after all those expenses.

Tickets could go for up to $100 each, with individual prizes worth $40,000 and a total of $250,000 in prizes for each event. If several charities joined together to hold a combined raffle , the pot could be multiplied by the number of sponsors.

Other provisions likewise give the appearance of restrictions without actually restricting anything.

For example, charities would have to register with the secretary of state’s office, and be limited to four raffles per year — unless the prizes didn’t exceed $950 each. Then there’s no registration, and no limit on the number of raffles — which means a group could conduct dozens of individual $950 raffles at the same location, on the same night, every night of the year, except Christmas.

Another provision says that raffle prizes can’t be exchanged for cash. But given our history with the video poker magnates, it doesn’t take much imagination to see someone setting up a program to exchange the prizes for vouchers, which could in turn be exchanged for cash.

My favorite restriction that doesn’t restrict anything involves who can run a raffle. The legislation says only charities need apply. Then it defines a charity as any group with non-profit status that claims it’s a charity. Even the definition of “charitable” covers practically anything from religious and philanthropic to environmental, civic or educational — which is what any lobbying organization worth its salt claims to be.

The last time I wrote about raffles , I got a note from a sheriff who learned how easy it is for people to call themselves charities when he discovered some of them using that designation to avoid purchasing retail liquor permits. One man who got a non-profit charter from the state explained to the sheriff that “after he paid for the rent on the building, paid for his liquor/ beer, food and paid himself, he had no profit. … All they have to do is claim they give money to a charity. This could be only a dollar. However, there is no follow up even if they give the money.”

Even if the raffle bill gave the secretary of state the authority to determine what is and isn’t a legitimate “charity” — and it doesn’t — it wouldn’t matter, since the Senate stripped out the raffle-registration fee that was supposed to fund enforcement.

There was no question in my mind that the bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would open the door to casino gambling on a fairly significant scale. After nearly three weeks of debate, gambling opponents managed to remove the most worrisome provisions — principally those that allowed participants in the “casino night” events to win chips that would be used as raffle tickets. Now I don’t see the same opportunities for virtually unlimited gambling in the bill that finally passed the Senate (although that doesn’t mean it’s not there; I could simply be missing it).

But what I do see is very different than what the public is being sold — which makes me wonder why supporters are trying so very hard to deceive us.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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