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January 23, 2014

Bigger prizes may be jackpot for charity bingos

Bingo, other charity gaming revenues drop $100 million.

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 non-profits 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.

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