Charity exception sought to state gaming laws

Bill Stevens says he's trying to do the right thing by changing a state law that's been hanging around for about 300 years.

Stevens, a Daniel Island retiree and frequent volunteer for charity, said state law governing church raffles and charity fund-raisers creates uncertainty that often keeps organizations from raising money for the community. He wants the Legislature to carve out a limited exemption in South Carolina's messy anti-gambling law to erase the ambiguity. But he has an uphill battle against Upstate legislators who are worried any change will open the door to professional betting and the return of video poker.

"You take a law (written) to stop card rooms and sports betting, and we've ended up with a quandary in the mind of folks who are just trying to do good work in the community," Stevens said.

Stevens proposes an exemption for events that send at least 90 percent of proceeds to charitable, religious or philanthropic work. The exemption would not allow third parties to put on the event, and the fundraising must be subject to certain safeguards.

On Stevens' side are two powerful Charleston County Republicans - Senate leader Glenn McConnell and Rep. Jim Merrill, former House majority leader.

Stevens approached Merrill after running into questions with his work on the annual Charity Duck Race put on by the Rotary Club of Daniel Island.

The exemption is needed now, Stevens said, as charities are hit with a "triple whammy": The need for their services has gone up, contributions are flat or down, and the state has pulled back its contributions to their missions.

Merrill pre-filed bills in advance of the Legislature's January return to tag-team the effort with McConnell, who pushed similar legislation earlier this year. McConnell's legislation now awaits consideration on the Senate floor.

South Carolina's gaming law has changed very little since the 1700s. Depending on how the law is interpreted, bingo games, cake raffles and other nonprofit fundraisers could be illegal.

"It's up for interpretation," McConnell said.

The law also bans some card and dice games, such as Go Fish, Yahtzee and Monopoly, in certain places, including a tavern, barn, kitchen, stable and outhouse.

McConnell started his push to modernize the gaming laws after a group of players was busted in a 2006 raid for playing Texas Hold'em at a Mount Pleasant home. The case is pending in court.