Bingo operators seek eligibility rule's end

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Charity bingo operators are asking lawmakers for another shot at changing the Missouri Constitution to lift what they say is an outdated restriction on who can work bingo games.

A proposed constitutional amendment considered Monday by a Senate committee would ask voters to remove the existing requirement that someone must be a member of the organization sponsoring a bingo game for two years before being allowed to work it.

Larry Loos, a member of the Cape Girardeau Optimist Club, told committee members the two-year rule puts an unnecessary hardship on service clubs, church groups and other not-for-profit organizations that use bingo as a major fund-raising tool.

"It is frequently a struggle for us to get enough workers to adequately serve our players," Loos said.

Since the Cape Girardeau and Jackson Optimists started their weekly Friday night bingo game in September 2001, they have raised more than $410,000, Loos said. The money has been used for a long list of community betterment purposes, including improvements at city parks, support for youth sports and donations to charitable groups.

Loos said 470 not-for-profit groups currently have state licenses to run regular bingo games.

The proposed amendment is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Shell Knob. Although he has been a Lions Club member for more than two decades, Taylor said, after he transferred from one chapter to another he was unable to participate in his new club's bingo operation.

"The intent of this legislation is to make it easier for charitable organizations to operate charitable bingo," he said.

Missouri voters torpedoed a similar proposal in 2000 when with 67.5 percent opposition they rejected reducing the membership requirement to six months. With no organized effort to secure ratification, the measure garnered little public attention.

If the measure clears the legislature, it would go before voters on the November 2006 ballot or at an earlier election if the governor called for one.

After the hearing, Loos said supporters are better organized than they were five years ago, although it would still take hard work to win voter approval.

"It's not a slam dunk. There is no question about it," Loos said. "We don't have the funds to have a big campaign."

The Missouri Gaming Commission, which regulates charitable bingo operations, endorses the proposed amendment. Commission spokesman Harold Bailey said the mandatory background checks already required of those who work bingo games serve the purpose of weeding out unsavory individuals.

"The two-year requirement is unfair, and we feel background checks take care of any concerns we have," Bailey said.

Bev Ehlen of the Missouri chapter of Concerned Women for America, a pro-family advocacy group, voiced the only opposition to the measure. If the proposal were refined to simply relax the existing eligibility rule instead of doing away with it, Ehlen said the organization might reconsider its stance.

"Before you take out a fence, you should try to find out why the fence was put there in the first place," Ehlen said.

The Senate Financial, Governmental Organizations and Elections Committee will take action on the measure at a later date.

The proposal is SJR 12.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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