Lottery may be legal, but bingo fund-raisers still taboo

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Gov. Phil Bredesen may have signed lottery legislation into law, but it will be at least January before legislators revisit the idea of bingo fund-raisers.
   State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-3rd District, said Wednesday, "I would rather have that [bingo] than the lottery, to tell you the truth. But the way Rep. [Steve] Cohen did it with his bill, they passed it so each charitable organization could have one annual 'lottery' event. And of course, it's not defined." So it was put off until next year.
   According to District Attorney General Joe Crumley, "Bingo is defined by the attorney general as a lottery," which Crumley said gave him some hope that there might be an opportunity there to legalize bingo fund-raisers.
   "But I think it's going to take the Legislature to do it. I don't think that a constitutional amendment would necessarily affect the attorney general's opinion," he said.
   Several years ago, Crumley was forced to issue the unpopular opinion that bingo games, as being conducted by the Carter County Rescue Squad, were illegal. "I hope people understand that I did not go to them and say, 'what you're doing has got to stop.' They called me and asked me if it was legal.
   "I told them a long time ago that there was a problem with what they were doing, but that it was not a priority to me." Since then, "There have been four opinions, directly on point, that the particular way they were doing those there was not lawful," he said.
   As far as bingo is concerned, Crumley said, "I think it's one of the most inoffensive things that can happen. I played bingo at the beach with my mother when I was a kid, and I don't think it harmed me in any way. The very idea that that would be in our [state] Constitution, I find patently offensive."
   Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-4th District, said legislators considered allowing charitable organizations to hold one fund-raiser a year, "but they had to go through the Legislature to approve the fund-raiser individually, which would be just a nightmare. All you're doing is approving these fund-raisers. I think that idea was scrapped because, logistically, it wasn't going to work," he said.
   The problem in January will be getting legislators to agree on what charitable organizations can and can't do, Cochran said. "Everybody has their own idea on how to do this, and nothing has a majority right now.
   "I know they tried the last day to get an exception for the rubber duck race in Knoxville, but that was killed quickly. They thought that was a game of chance, and they felt it was unfair to let them do their event while these other charitable organizations couldn't do theirs yet."
   When a consensus could not be reached, the issue was put off until next year, he said.
   The bingo issue will be studied this summer in the Oversight Education Committee, according to Sen. Crowe.
   "I'm sure we'll be hearing when that committee starts up. It'll be on the front-burner, I think, because all of the groups want to know. This summer, I would say, they will decide just how [the law] can be amended.
   "Evidently the way Cohen drafted it, you would have to approve it for every single charitable organization that requested it, like the Boys Club, the American Legion -- there's hundreds of them. So they're trying to figure out how to do that right now.
   "I'd love to have bingo. Seniors love it. You can do it, and do it right," he said.
   Legislators did approve one thing which Crowe feels was a good move. "Say you win a $20 million jackpot [in the lottery] and you can't find your ticket; you don't know you won; you never claim it. Half that money goes to the Boys and Girls Club for after-school programs."
   Crumley said that rather than signing the lottery bill into law as passed, "I would have preferred they just repeal the lottery statute from the Constitution of the state of Tennessee, then the legislators could sit there and say, 'OK, we want to pass this; we want to pass that.'
   "I think what it's all going to come down to is what the Legislature says they think they can do, and what the attorney general says is going to pass muster if there's a challenge to it."