Scoppe: Taking a gamble on charitable gambling

Associate EditorMarch 7, 2013 

 

— EVEN LONGTIME gambling opponents, we are told, have softened their position on charity raffles.

Well, that’s one way to look at the Senate’s 38-1 vote to amend the state constitution and allow another exception to the state’s ban on lotteries. (The state already exempted itself, a foolish move that isn’t going to be reversed anytime soon.)

The other way to look at it is to recognize that longtime gambling promoters finally stopped being kid-in-a-candy-store greedy, and started proposing legislation that was nearly as modest as they claim.

Like a lot of longtime gambling opponents, I’ve never had any great objection to allowing a parish to hold a raffle in the fellowship hall after Mass to raise money for the building fund. Never minded the idea of letting the PTA sell $1 tickets for a cake walk to come up with some cash for an after-school program.

But no one actually proposed that before.

Oh, my friend Glenn McConnell always said that was what he was proposing when he rolled out his so-called charity raffles legislation. And in fact his legislation would have allowed actual charities to run the sort of home-made raffles that he and other supporters hung their hats on. But it also would have allowed gambling operators to run sophisticated gambling operations and throw a few coins to any non-profit organizations that would lend their names to the effort.

Under Mr. McConnell’s 2011 bill, for example, “charitable raffles” could have been 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 — turn key operations that would furnish not only the venue but also “entertainment … 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 were “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.” Which sounds like a real protection, but in reality either means that there would be nothing particularly entertaining about the entertainment, or else that someone had already figured out a way to skirt the prohibition. Sort of like the scam today’s “sweepstakes” operators are offering: It’s not actually gambling if we call it something else. And with the previous “charity raffles” bills, it’s not actually casino gambling if we call it something else.

Oh, and “charities”? They didn’t have to be charities. They were defined as pretty much any tax-exempt organization, which is to say every lobbying group that makes you see red, no matter where you find yourself along the political spectrum.

The bill the Senate passed last month — the one that longtime gambling opponents inside the Senate voted for and longtime gambling opponents outside the Senate did not object to — is much more tightly written.

It does still define “charities” much too loosely. But it requires them to do all the work themselves; it even prohibits them from hiring any staff whose primary job is to run raffles. It doesn’t seem to allow any role for professional gambling promoters.

It also eliminates the “casino-night” events, constraining charity raffles to something closer to those innocent church and school events that supporters love to conjure up in our minds.

And it includes a sunset provision that deauthorizes raffles in 2020 unless the House and Senate reauthorize them by two-thirds votes, and then again every 10 years. I have philosophical qualms about requiring a two-thirds vote for any statutory change, even when it aids my position, because it undermines the concept of majority rule. But having some sort of sunset provision would provide some protection in case it turns out that the legislation is more wide open than it seems. Or if it somehow becomes more wide open than it seems.

That’s no small thing, because our Legislature is notorious for passing laws that don’t seem to allow wide-open gambling but really do.

Gambling opponents haven’t fought this year’s legislation because there are lots of honest people who want to run an honest little raffle — not because they want to get rich off of gambling, or want to take over our political system, but simply because it’s a different way to make a few bucks for their charitable cause. A lot of them are doing that already, illegally.

And it has always been difficult to explain to these honest people why that’s so wrong. Fighting something as mom-and-apple-pie-sounding as charitable raffles made gambling opponents look extreme, no matter how many times we tried to explain that the legislation did so much more than that.

Of course, even the watered-down bill still allows tickets of up to $100, individual prizes of up to $40,000 and a total purse per event of up to $250,000. Not exactly your granddaddy’s raffle.

Add to that the fact that removing a constitutional prohibition on privately run lotteries gives the people who spend all their waking hours looking for loopholes in our gambling laws (see “sweepstakes” promotions today, video gambling before) one more vein to mine, and you understand why most gambling opponents don’t actually support the legislation. And likely won’t.

The fact is that there is no actual need for my church and your elementary school and various civic clubs to hold raffles. In order to “rescue” charitable organizations from financial ruin, as supporters claim the raffle exemption would do, a raffle would have to be of the size and type that our lawmakers have specifically, and for good reason, sought to prohibit: professionally managed gambling enterprises that entice people who can’t afford to lose but who inevitably do, for the profit of whoever runs the enterprise.

Maybe it makes sense to go ahead and let this legislation pass, so we can focus our attention on all of the places where we know the gambling industry is trying to expand footholds (see “sweepstakes” promotions, again). Think of it as shutting down one front in a war. But even if this is a gamble worth taking, it’s still a gamble.

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

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