By JULIE BENAMATI
Area legislators have supported a House bill that would double the amount that charities and nonprofit groups could pay out in bingo games.
Now, groups including private schools and volunteer fire companies that host bingo fund-raisers are limited to paying out $4,000 in prize money per day.
Under state House Bill 10, bingo games could pay out $8,000 in one day.
State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, voted in favor of the bill, which is on its way to the state Senate after overwhelming approval in the House.
“The people who do the bingos have asked for these changes,” Haluska said. “Increasing the payouts will attract people.”
Haluska used state lottery, specifically the multistate Powerball, as an example.
“More and more people buy tickets based on the payout,” Haluska said. “It should be the same way with bingo.”
State Rep. Tom Yewcic, D-Jackson Township, joined Haluska in voting for the change.
“We have to support our fire companies and nonprofits,” Yewcic said.
He said this bill is “one of the ripple effects” of the gaming law, which legalizes slot machines.
“When (other) states legalized gaming, which I was opposed to, charitable giving went down 60 percent the first year,” Yewcic said.
“That meant there was a lot less money for nonprofits like fire companies. People weren’t playing bingo; they were going to the casinos,” he added.
Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board will begin taking applications Nov. 1 for licenses for seven slot-machine parlors that do not have to be located at race tracks. Gamers could be pulling levers next year.
In order for nonprofits to compete for the cash, Yewcic said, the limits on what could be paid out have to be raised.
State Rep. Christopher Sainato, D-Lawrence, said that with the arrival of slots, customers who normally patronize the local bingo halls in hopes of big wins may be spending their money on slots instead.
“These limits have not been raised in many, many years, and these organizations need a chance to compete,” Sainato said. “Give our fire departments a chance to compete, and give your social organizations a chance to compete.”
Wendy Kanouff, manager at Contres-Greer Social Hall, 1700 Kennedy Ave., Northern Cambria, said that while she welcomes the double payout, she fears the bill will actually hurt some organizations.
Built by Spangler Volunteer Fire Company, the Contres-Greer hall sponsors bingo games twice a week, on Sunday and Tuesday nights.
For a $21 admission fee, players can play bingo as well as buy “specials” and other games. The Contres-Greer event at-tracts from 80 to 200 players per night, averaging about 160, Kanouff said.
Her bingo nights pay out the maximum $4,000 each night.
“If (the bill) passes, I think it’s going to hurt some and help some,” Kanouff said. “It may put the smaller bingos out of business, because they can’t shell out as much because some of the players will go to the big places.”
Kanouff said avid, serious players travel a bingo circuit – some almost every night of the week – to the places with the biggest payouts.
Mark Kline, organizer of Northern Cambria Catholic School’s bingo, said the parochial school depends on its weekly $4,000 bingo night, as well as other fund-raisers, to stay afloat.
“Bingo raises a large portion of the extra monies needed that don’t come from the parishes or from the tuition,” Kline said. He said the school hosts bingo every week, all year round.
He said the school’s bingo averages the same as the Contres-Greer bingo, guessing that the two organizations probably see many of the same players.
Kline said he has mixed feelings about the increased prize money.
“If the bill does pass, more bingos will surely have an $8,000 night,” he said.
He said many organizations occasionally advertise an $8,000 or $12,000 payouts to attract more players, and are able to do so through multiple licenses.
For example, a volunteer fire company, its ladies auxiliary, and its junior firefighters can each have their own bingo license – and combine them in one game for a $12,000 payout. Each license costs an organization $100 per year.
“We’ve thought about doing that, but we never have,” Kline said. “You get into the winter months, and it’s tough. You can’t cut the payouts when there’s only 95 people in the hall.”
Kline agreed that some bingos might fold because of the increased competition.
“The 30 extra people you get that you don’t normally see ... you know they came from somewhere else,” Kline said. “When you have a jackpot that is a lot bigger than normal, you know you’re going to get someone else’s players. It could hurt other bingos.”
Kanouff said she worries other organizations won’t be able to keep up with the big clubs.
“That’s sad,” Kanouff said, “because we’re all here for the same reason – to raise money for the fire company or other group that really needs it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.