Archive for Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Georgia, Tennessee battle over bingo

March 21, 2006

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— Most nights, a hushed crowd of at least 50 sits at lunchroom tables in this border town's bingo parlor, scratching off each square with oversized markers.

Many of the regulars make the short trek from Tennessee, where bingo was banned in 1989, for the chance to win as much as $1,500.

The proceeds from the games go to three Chattanooga, Tenn., nonprofits, but the bingo nights could be numbered under a proposal in the Georgia Legislature.

A Senate proposal that passed by a 44-1 vote would require bingo game operators spend their proceeds within the state, effectively shutting down the Rossville games. The House could consider the proposal this week.

"This isn't right that a bingo company from another state can come in here and take money from Georgia and give the vast majority to Tennessee," said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, only a few miles south of Rossville and the border.

He and other sponsors argue the parlor takes away business from other local bingo games, like those run by veterans groups at the nearby American Legion Post.

Larry Hester, commander of the post, says his games' revenues are down about $40,000 since the Chattanooga groups came to town.

"If a charity here in Georgia wants to set up shop and do bingo, that's fine. But I don't think a charity out of Tennessee should come here," he said. "If they want bingo, why don't they try and get it back?"

In the late 1980s, a Tennessee police sting dubbed "Operation Rocky Top" uncovered a ring of third-party bingo operators using state charters for legit charities to run gambling parlors. The state responded by outlawing bingo and only recently loosened the law to allow charity raffles and other gambling fundraisers.

The Chattanooga nonprofits - two firefighter groups and a boy's home - argue that it shouldn't matter where the money is spent as long as it goes to needy causes.

"We're all just doing the best we can, trying to help the families that need it," said Capt. Ron Boyd, who organizes games for the Chattanooga Firefighters Assn.

His group has made roughly $10,000 since it began running the game last August. Most of the proceeds go to causes across the state line, but about 25 percent is spent on Georgia charities. The group says it gave $1,500 to a local middle school and another $1,000 to Rossville's library.

Lynn Byrd acknowledges that 100 percent of the $10,000 he's made is spent in Tennessee on the New Life Home for Boys, which helps rehabilitate and educate troubled youth.

"The lawmakers are doing what they had to do - taking care of their constituents," said Byrd, the home's director. "But we're bringing people here, and this town is drying up."

If the legislation passes, the Chattanooga groups vow a court challenge. They've hired an attorney who contends it violates the federal commerce clause.

Some of the regulars seem downright confused by the sudden interest in their bingo parlor. They say there's not much else to do in the tiny town of roughly 3,500.

Dee Martin, a 58-year-old retiree, plays three nights a week. The handful of games he's won keeps him coming back for more - regardless of which charities benefit.

"As long as the money is going for a good thing, I don't know what the big hassle is," he said.

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