The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 20, 2013

Taking a big gamble

JOHNSTOWN — Some time ago, state police Lt. James Jones attended a seminar to discuss the commonwealth’s small games of chance laws and saw the event’s hosts collecting money for a 50/50 drawing.

He laughed about it to himself.

The common fundraiser was, at the time, actually illegal in Pennsylvania.

Not so anymore, though.

Two laws – Act 2 of 2012 and Act 184 of 2012 – modified the state’s gambling rules that had been in place since 1988.

Among the changes, Pennsylvania legalized 50/50s, a common fundraiser for churches, high school sports teams, social clubs and countless other organizations. Jones, a representative of the PSP’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said many people were unaware the game was forbidden until last year.

“It just legalized something that everybody had been playing for years,” he said.

Permitting 50/50 drawings was one of a few big changes made by the Legislature. Pennsylvania increased an organization’s weekly prize limit from $5,000 to $25,000. The maximum individual payout for a chance grew from $500 to $1,000. Clubs licensed to sell liquor, excluding sportsmen’s organizations, are now allowed to keep 30 percent of the money raised from gambling for approved operating expenses; all of the funds previously needed to be directed toward the public interest.

Jones gave presentations throughout the region to teach operators of small games of chance about the changes.

In the process, he noticed people were often “shocked” when they realized they had been conducting illegal forms of gambling, such as 50/50s.

Other popular games, including Texas hold’em tournaments, nights at the races, paddle auctions, casino nights, sports pools, Chinese auctions as traditionally operated, chuck-a-luck wheels and video gaming devices, were – and still are – illegal.

Only punchboards, pull-tabs, raffles, daily drawings, weekly drawings and 50/50s are permitted.

“The rules really haven’t changed a whole lot,” said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, from the 73rd district.

An increased emphasis has been placed on record-keeping.

Nonclub licensees that earn $2,500 or more during a

year from small games of chance are required to report the number of W-2G gambling-related federal tax forms issued, gross winnings reported, revenue/ expenses associated with small games of chance, prizes paid out and amount of proceeds used for public interest purposes.

Holders of club licenses will need to go into even more detailed itemization.

“There is a lot of recording,” said Michael Shawley, president of the Slovak Educational Society on Virginia Avenue in Johns-town.

He added, “We try to go by the books. I don’t want people to see my name in the paper for running an illegal gambling operation.”

Tom Callihan, fire administrator of the Oakland Volunteer Fire Company, concurred: “We have to be very careful with these things.”

Organizations will have to file their first reports on Feb. 1.

Clubs will need to submit information semi-annually; nonclubs once per year.

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