Lotto Balls

Missouri lawmakers are trying to drum up business at bingo halls by making the state’s oldest form of legalized gambling more appealing to potential patrons.

Legislation passed by the Senate would allow bingo parlors to open earlier, close later and spend up to five times as much money on advertising as is currently allowed.

In the past 15 years, the number of organizations licensed to run regularly scheduled bingo games has fallen by more than half – from 852 to 354, according to figures provided Friday by the Missouri Gaming Commission. Among those closing is the Houston VFW bingo games.

Bingo games, which were legalized by Missouri voters in 1980, can be operated only by charitable, religious, veteran, fraternal and service organizations. And the people who run the games must be volunteers who are members of those groups.

Riverside casinos, which began operating in Missouri in 1994, are run by for-profit companies with paid employees. Missouri now has about a dozen casinos, which took in more than $1.7 billion and employed nearly 11,000 people last year.

“These bingo games can’t compete with riverboat gambling and other forms of entertainment,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who is sponsoring the legislation relaxing bingo laws.

Senators passed the bill by a 23-9 vote last Thursday, sending it to the House.

Although there was not extensive debate, Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, criticized the bill as an “expansion of gambling across the state of Missouri.”

Bingo generally has declined worldwide, but its fade in Missouri may also be due to city smoking bans and a requirement that bingo volunteers must have been members of their nonprofit groups for at least two years, Missouri Gaming Commission spokeswoman LeAnn McCarthy said.

The Senate legislation would allow groups to offer bingo games two days a week instead of the current limit of once weekly. It also would lengthen the potential operating hours to between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m., instead of the current limit of between 10 a.m. and midnight.

The bill would let bingo halls spend up to 10 percent of their receipts – instead of the current 2 percent – on advertising their games.

Other sections of the legislation would repeal existing dollar limits on bingo prizes, allowing those to instead be set by the gaming commission and would increase state licensing fees for manufacturers of bingo equipment and supplies.

Last year, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that included those same provisions and also would have eliminated taxes on the sale of bingo game cards. Nixon said the state could not afford the $2.2 million loss of tax revenues, which largely benefits the Missouri schools for the blind, deaf and severely disabled.

This year’s legislation does not include the tax provisions.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said the Senate bill alleviates Nixon’s concerns about taking money away from schools.

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