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Bingo bill may get studied to death

The measure to restrict commercial bingo hall operators appears poised to follow into oblivion.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The game of bingo -- yes, bingo -- has prompted tears and near fistfights in the Capitol for two decades. But this session, the issue appears headed for the dullest of legislative deaths:

The study commission.

In 10 of the last 12 years, lawmakers have filed bills to restrict commercial bingo hall operators. By running more games than Florida law meant to allow, critics say, the halls have forced veterans groups to close their traditional venues for lack of profit.

But the commercial halls have their own veterans to defend them. They argue that new limits would put the halls out of business, spelling the end of bingo for thousands of devoted players.

"There has got to be a happy medium," said state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who wants new limits on the commercial halls. "I don't know what that is."

A growing number of cities and counties have their own bingo ordinances, including Pinellas and Pasco counties. King's proposed limits are tougher than many of those rules and would apply to the entire state -- but not any time soon.

After the revisions stalled in a House committee, King agreed this week to the creation of a nine-member study commission. Members, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker John Thrasher, would be charged with finding a compromise to end the bingo wars.

King's bill and a House version are scheduled to be heard in several committees before they are voted on by the full chambers.

Florida law allows only charitable, non-profit or veterans groups to conduct bingo and requires that the profits go to charity. Commercial halls get around the law by renting space to the groups and running the games for them.

By running games for multiple groups, the commercial halls can offer up to 12 $250 jackpots a day -- tough competition for the typical VFW or American Legion post that the law limits to three jackpots a day.

The commercial halls often return only a small percentage of profits to the charities who rent their services. But the cost is worth it to some veterans groups, including the Jewish War Veterans and Marine Corps League. Those groups oppose limiting how many jackpots the halls can offer.

"We make more money by (using the halls) than we could by running it ourselves," said William Crawford, a retired Marine from Panama City.

Another, less controversial proposal to change bingo is enjoying a smoother ride through the House and Senate. The bill would legalize all bingo games for money at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and centers for the developmentally disabled.

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