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Editorial: If tribes want it BINGO! they get it


September 4, 2008, Sacramento Bee

In recent years, charity bingo has been unable to compete with the richer prizes and slot machine-type bingo games allowed at Indian casinos in California. Alarmed by dwindling bingo revenues, the Catholic Church, one of the state's biggest charity bingo operators, pushed a bill by state Sen. Gill Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, to double the $250 prize limit in charity bingo games. Meanwhile at the behest of a handful of local charities, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill to legalize bingo machines.

Unwilling to tolerate any serious competition with their gambling operations, the tribes initially fought both bills. As a chronology put together by The Sacramento Bee's Steve Wiegand makes clear, the tribes prevailed at almost every legislative hearing. Not coincidentally, the tribes have contributed $656,700 to 70 of the Legislature's 120 members in the first six months of 2008.

After the tribes announced their opposition, Steinberg quickly dropped his bill to allow electronic bingo at charity bingo parlors. The Cedillo bill was amended to give big charities the power to consolidate and simulcast their operations. Anything that might have constituted a real threat to the tribes' slot machine monopoly was deleted.

None of the special interests embroiled in the legislative battle over bingo acted from pure motives. Charity bingo is big business. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, bingo operators in Sacramento pulled in $48.4 million. Most of that money, 77 percent, went for prizes. Another 15 percent went to pay overhead. Just 8 percent of the proceeds, $3.7 million, went to charitable purposes. While the charities were the face of the bingo bill, the real muscle behind the bills were the bingo machine manufacturers. Their machines operate like slots, and their legality is questionable at best.

That said, this session's bingo bill once again highlights the clout of gambling tribes. When it comes to the Legislature, the tribes almost always get what they demand. What will they demand next?

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