Measures advanced by the state House and Senate in recent weeks could give Pennsylvania's fire halls and veterans' clubs a boost in their fundraising abilities.
Each chamber approved similar bills this month to hike the amount those groups can offer in prizes for raffles and drawings as well as to add stricter enforcement measures for private clubs that skirt state rules.
"These groups are generating a lot of revenue for a lot of good purposes," said Jason Brehouse, executive counsel for Sen. Jane Earll, a Republican from Erie who sponsored the Senate measure. "These changes would be creating some more oversight and accountability."
The two measures are fairly similar in many ways, he said, noting that the weekly maximum that groups could offer in prizes would increase from the current $5,000 to $25,000 under the Senate bill or to $30,000 under the House bill.
Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from Cumberland who sponsored the House version of the bill, said both bodies agree on enough key points that reconciling the two versions and passing final legislation is likely. If enacted, the new rules would help many struggling community organizations, she said.
"Local, state and federal governments don't have the dollars to support community organizations as we have in the past -- there's less funds to do so," Rep. Delozier said. "I think this is a great opportunity to give those community organizations a way to fill in those gaps the government can no longer fill."
Under either proposal, some civic groups also would be allowed to keep a portion of the dollars they take in -- something they currently are prohibited from doing. The change would allow organizations to put 30 percent of the dollars raised through small games of chance toward their operating expenses.
The remaining dollars would have to be used, as they are now, for public purposes, such as for a scholarship program or operation of the local police or fire department.
At the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department in Westmoreland County, bingo players pay an average of $25 for 24 regular bingo cards plus the department's special game, according to fire Chief Dan Black. Payouts for a regular bingo card are $50, while the special game pays $100. The department's "must-go" jackpot card, in which the player must fill the entire card to win, pays $1,000, he said.
In a typical week, payouts often reach $4,000, bumping up against state limits, he said. The new limits would give the department more flexibility and potentially allow it to generate more revenue, Chief Black said.
"That doesn't mean we could afford to pay out $20,000 -- that would depend on how many people showed up -- but it would open us up so we could run more games," he said. "I think every bingo around here is bumping that limit, and it would be nice to have a little buffer in there."
As for the fire department taking an additional share of the winnings, even for a good cause? Chief Black wasn't so sure about that.
"I don't know how that would go over with the ladies out there if you told them that," he said.
Many of the proposals to expand the rules for small local games have been tossed around the Legislature for several years. However, the push last session toward adding table games to the state's casinos and the unsuccessful proposal from then-Gov. Ed Rendell to allow taverns and clubs to host video poker terminals "added complexity to the issue," Mr. Brehouse said.
He said Sen. Earll "has a preference to see this done sooner rather than later," adding that the differences in the two bills potentially could be worked out before lawmakers head to winter break in mid-December.