Charity bingo bill for county draws opposition

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 2, 2006

A bill to legalize bingo introduced last week by Charles Newton, D-Greenville, has drawn the ire of opponents who say it could open the door for casino-style gambling in Butler County.

The bill was modeled after similar legislation that has been in place in Covington County for more than a decade that allows bingo games to be run by non-profit organizations, said Newton.

&#8220I was contacted by the American Legion of Butler County, and they said there are other American Legions around the state that have bingo and wanted to know what their post in Butler County could do to have bingo,” Newton said. &#8220I found out it would take legislation to do it, and we modeled it on Covington County's legislation that is very restrictive and only limits it to bingo.”

John Giles, President of the Christian Coalition of Alabama said he was surprised to see the bill introduced.

&#8220We have a standing tenant in our organization to protect our communities from the expansion of gambling, and we view this as a gambling expansion bill,” said Giles in a telephone interview. &#8220Personally, I think the world of Charles Newton, but I was shocked to see it in the hopper.”

Giles said he fears the bill, which does not distinguish whether the games are card style or electronic, could get distorted as it works its way through the legislature and wind up being totally different than what Newton intended.

&#8220Originally a lot of these counties passed bingo bills that were routine, ping pong ball bingo,” he said. &#8220Milton McGregor can get hold of a bill like that and morph it into something that winds up with you having a casino on I-65 in Greenville.”

Giles claims McGregor, who offers electronic bingo games at his VictoryLand Dog Track in Macon County, has substantial influence in the legislature.

According to the proposed constitutional amendment, the bingo games would be operated for prizes or money by &#8220certain nonprofit organizations and certain private clubs for charitable, educational, or other lawful purposes.” The bill proposes that 100 percent of the net revenues would be &#8220designated and expended for charitable and educational purposes.” It also establishes the county commission as the governing body for enforcement of the regulations of the bill and allows the commission to issue licenses within the county, same as in Covington County.

&#8220We've never had a minute's problem with it from a commission's standpoint,” said Greg White, president of the Covington County Commission, who says the bingo games are run by the American Legion. &#8220You go to the American Legion Hall and you play a card. It's nothing like video poker or (video) bingo or anything like that. There's no tricks. I'm anti-gambling, but I still have to say this operation has run well.”

American Legion Post 80 in Andalusia has awarded approximately $250,000 in scholarships the last five years.

&#8220It just depends on how the bingo is that year,” said Covington County Post 80 Adjutant Willie Ed Peters. &#8220We take all the profits and put it into scholarships and also give donations to disabled veterans who run into problems.”

Peters said the Legion has used some of the proceeds to build a building where they hold their bingo games on Tuesday and Friday nights and hold a dance on Saturday night.

&#8220We have quite a few people from Greenville and Georgiana that come down here and play bingo,” Peters said. &#8220I sure hope they pass it (in Butler County) because there'll be a lot of kids get scholarships out of it.”

Butler County Commissioner Jesse McWilliams said the local American Legion approached the commission about possible bingo for charity games.

&#8220It was brought to our attention by Col. (Eric) Cates with the American Legion that they'd like to do the same thing that they do in Covington County,” McWilliams said. &#8220Regardless of what I think, it would still have to go before a vote of the people.

McWilliams said Cates told the commission the money from the bingo games would be used for college scholarships.

Attempts to contact Cates for comment were unsuccessful.

According to the terms of Newton's bill, bingo games could only be run by the non-profit organizations that have been established in the county for five years and who have owned or leased property in the county for five years. It also prohibits the non-profit organization from contracting with an outside source to operate the games or the concessions or pay any consulting fees, compensation or salary to anyone involved in running the games.

&#8220They cannot pay anyone to work there, no compensation or salary,” Newton said. &#8220I don't see how it could escalate to what they have in other counties if you're not paying any salaries or compensating anyone to work there.”

Dan Irleand, who heads the Alabama Citizens Action Program that lobbies against the proliferation of gambling, says the state needs to define what bingo really is.

&#8220We're going to have to come to grips with what bingo is, and what is not bingo and as long as people are going to skirt the law and make these machines and call it bingo we're going to have problems,” he said. &#8220It may be good intentions to help charities and worthy organization, but there's other ways to do it.”

Currently there are 17 counties within the sate that have charity bingo constitutional amendments. In order to become law Newton's bill would have to be approved by the legislature and then be voted on in a local or state-wide referendum.