By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Bingo players in church basements and American Legion 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 up 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 nonprofits use to raise money.
The legislation comes after a nearly $100 million drop in the amount raised by bingos 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 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, as well as 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 due in part to 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.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Maureen.Hayden.
Bingo! In Madison County, there are five groups with bingo licenses. Collectively, they net $82,326 with $195 going to charity, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission. The organizations and the amount of gross receipts and -- minus expenses -- the net proceeds they reported for fiscal year ending 2013: AMVETS Post 692: $569,818; $32,169 B.P.O. Elks Lodge 209: $2,236,507; $46,526 Fraternal Order of Eagles 1771: $451,439; -$194,519 (expenses of $645,958) Madison County Deaf Club: $13,792; $6,982 Stepping Stones for Veterans: $2,601805; $191,168 Source: Indiana Gaming Commission