PA House Acts On Bill That Would Allow Groups To Move Their Small Games Of Chance Online

Fire companies, social clubs, and other nonprofits have seen gambling revenue losses from the pandemic, too, and hope to go online.
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In the more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic began impacting normal American life, there has been a focus in the gambling world on how casinos and sportsbook operators have been affected.

There has been less discussion of the impact on volunteer fire companies, fraternal clubs, and nonprofit organizations that subsidize themselves through small-time gambling, but the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recognized it with action Wednesday.

The House, by 193-8 vote, approved and sent to the Senate a measure, HB 290, that would allow those groups’ gambling-related fundraisers to be conducted online for at least the next year, due to the pandemic.

Hundreds of organizations conduct drawings, raffles, and similar games to raise money under the 1988 Local Option Small Games of Chance Act. They were only approved to run the gambling in person, however, and such gatherings have largely ceased since March 2020.

The legislation states that “during the COVID-19 disaster emergency or until May 1, 2022, whichever is later, an eligible organization may conduct and reveal the winner of raffles and drawings via an Internet-based conference software application in a manner otherwise in accordance with this chapter.”

Some already went online, but questionably

The Harrisburg-based PennLive.com media site reported that some organizations had tried to move their fundraising events online over the past year, but questions arose over their legality. If the Senate concurs and Gov. Tom Wolf signs the bill, it removes those concerns.

The House Gaming Oversight Committee approved the bill March 24, two months after it was introduced. Committee Chairwoman Sue Helm, a Dauphin County Republican, spoke on the House floor urging passage by her colleagues.

Conducting such games at licensed premises “is quite difficult in the time of closure and social distancing,” Helm said, according to PennLive. “This bill will help our fire departments, social organizations, and other nonprofits expand to use other options to conduct and reveal the winners of their raffles and drawings.”

In recognition of the hard times the organizations have experienced financially over the past year, the bill would also increase prize limits to $4,000 for a single game, instead of $2,000.

The affected clubs and organizations have long sought a chance for greater opportunity to raise funds from gambling, including legalization of machines they could host that would bear some resemblance to slot machines, though not the same as the ones in casinos. Unsanctioned gambling devices are known to be common throughout the state, whether in clubs, taverns, or convenience stores, and while the casino industry would like to see them eliminated, the legislature has lacked consensus on what to do about those.

Rep. Russ Diamond, a Lebanon County Republican, said volunteer fire companies dependent on games such as bingo lost revenue after the casinos opened as new competition, and the change envisioned by HB 290 might be one to be considered longer term after COVID-19 issues have waned.

“This could be an answer for a long-term non-COVID problem in Pennsylvania,” Diamond said of the online opportunities for small games of chance and bingo.

The legislation would bar the games from being conducted using graphics or animation similar to VGTs and slot machines.

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