Electronic bingo ban will affect California corps

by Christina Mavroudis-Dempsey, DCW staff

Are they slot machines or are they bingo aids? Legal or illegal?

That was the debate for nearly two years when the California Legislature banned electronic bingo machines in 2008. A temporary injunction allowed charity bingo games, like drum and bugle corps, to continue operating the machines, but in December 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the injunction. Consequently, on February 1, 2010 the machines became officially outlawed for bingo charities.

The controversy began when California Indian tribes that operate casinos argued that the slot machines violated their exclusive rights to slots.

It’s a heated debate that rallied drum corps fans to send letters to California legislators. With more than a quarter of DCI corps coming from California, this ban could have affected numerous organizations. Fortunately, at this date, the only corps affected would be Blue Devils and Freelancers.

According to a Contra Costa Times article, Blue Devils’ machines must be removed and could adversely affect their music programs.

Santa Clara Vanguard also relies on its games to support the organization’s programs. In an interview with SCV’s bingo manager, Sandra Adams, she was able to clear the confusion.

Most of this is a misunderstanding originating from the fact there are two types of electronic bingo machines: card minders and Class II games. Electronic card minders, also controversial back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, have since gained acceptance.

“We have used card minder machines for many years and they are completely legal,” said Adams. “The customers use these to ‘play’ additional bingo papers electronically and they have been found in the courts to support the needs of the disabled bingo player.

“It is the Class II electronic bingo games that have recently been banned in California,” she continued. “The Vanguard used the Class II machines until SB1369 took effect on January 1, 2009. Most of the bingo machines in this class have the look and feel of a slot machine, although the machines do not give or take any cash. All cash transactions are handled by a separate cashier.”

One could contend that by virtue of immediate non-monetary transactions, Class II machines are not slot machines. Additionally, the machines are not classified as such.

Adams agrees. “The legislation that banned the charity use of Class II games was instigated by the tribes that operate casinos in California,” she explained. “They were accusing the charities of having slot machines. However, these machines are also used in the tribal casinos, yet they are not counted in their allowed quantity of slot machines which are Class I games. This is a double standard that is being used as a defense against competition.”

Pacific Crest Director Stuart Pompel agrees. “I’m concerned that tribal communities are afforded rights that our other communities don’t have.”

Adams feels that in the big business of the tribal casino verses the small businesses of the charities that use bingo as a fund-raiser, “The small charities didn’t stand a chance of stopping the tribes from getting their way.”

Anticipating the ban, the Santa Clara Vanguard took steps to be in compliance. While there was an initial set-back, the end result was balanced.

“When we didn’t have Class II games, we were losing bingo customers to nearby halls that did,” she explained. “Once we shut down our Class II games, we were again losing bingo customers to one nearby hall that elected to keep the games, with the hope that the court case would reinstate them. Only a couple of months later, that hall also gave up its Class II games and our attendance returned to normal levels.

“In the year since we stopped using those games, our bingo customers are back and their spending on bingo is back to normal. Our revenue for 2009 without Class II games was virtually the same as our 2008 revenue with the Class II games,” Adams stated.

In these tough economic times, this ban is just one of many challenges facing not-for-profit organizations, affecting lives, livelihoods and the drum corps and bugle corps activity . . . at least in California.

Here’s to a quick recovery for all.