Western Pa. charitable clubs say gambling sustains them
Through the years, members of the American Legion in Connellsville have used gambling proceeds to put a new roof on their building, buy a furnace, replace a sewer line and pave their parking lot.
But all of those purchases were made with money obtained illegally because Pennsylvania law since 1988 required proceeds from small games of chance to be donated to charity.
Legislators thought they were helping earlier this year when they passed a law that increases prize limits and allows veterans clubs to keep 30 percent of their gambling proceeds.
For clubs that say they’ve been keeping the money all along, unaware they were supposed to give it all away, the new law is a hindrance more than a help.
“We can’t afford to operate the way the state wants us to run these,” said Russ Miller, commander of Connellsville’s American Legion Post 301. “They want you to spend the money at the casinos, not here.”
Miller invited members of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts from Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington counties to a meeting with lawmakers Monday to discuss their concerns with the law.
A crowd of about 125 peppered state Reps. Mike Reese, Tim Krieger, Deberah Kula, Pete Daley and Sen. Richard Kasunic with their questions and concerns about the legislation, which was signed into law in February.
The intent of the law, which was requested by the state offices of veterans groups and fraternal organizations, was to increase prize limits and allow the clubs to use some of the money for their own expenses, according to its sponsor, Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Cumberland County Republican.
“For clubs that were acting as the 1988 law stipulated they should be doing business, this bill should be a windfall in dollars for them,” Delozier said in a telephone interview.
But those at Monday’s meeting said they are accustomed to using more of the gambling revenue than is allowed by the current law.
Miller said his gambling revenue is down about 60 percent since the new law went into effect.
“People don’t want to buy the games because they say, ‘Why play? We have to give it away,’” Miller said.
The post’s monthly bills exceed $10,300 and payroll costs $3,000. Miller said he’s had to dip into a building fund twice to meet payroll.
Soon, the bank account will be empty, he said, and he worries he may have to shut his doors.
“This is the place that veterans can come and talk to other veterans who got themselves shot up and are suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Miller said.
The Connellsville post is not alone in its reliance on small games of chance for operating expenses.
“Can you run your offices on 30 percent of the budget allocated now?” Steve Bobincheck, commander of Unity Township American Legion Post 982, asked the legislators in attendance. “If you can’t do that, how do you expect us to do that?”
Some suggested allowing the clubs to keep 70 percent of the gambling proceeds.
Many were concerned about the required paperwork and record-keeping that must be filed with the state. The same paperwork was required under the previous law, but there was no filing requirement.
The legislators in attendance said they are sympathetic to the clubs’ pleas.
Kula, a North Union Democrat, said she would support allowing clubs to keep more of the money, though she believes the reporting requirements are necessary to protect clubs from embezzlement.
Daley, a California Democrat, said he introduced a bill to repeal the new law.
“It should be 70-30 the other way, because if it is not, you’re not going to stay in business,” he said.
Kasunic, a Dunbar Township Democrat, agreed the law needs to be changed.
“Nobody really sat down and looked at the issue and how it was going to affect everyone,” he said. “Something with good intentions ended up really bad.”
Reese, a Mt. Pleasant Township Republican, said he believes the law is being enforced incorrectly.
“I believe that 70 percent can go back to the Legion because you are a charitable organization,” he said. “… I think we can make this bill a little better. We have some work to do, but it can be done.”
Despite that, the legislators said any changes likely won’t be taken up until early next year.
That didn’t sit well with those in the crowd.
“If you people can’t get together and do something by February, you’ll have 30 percent of these clubs closing,” said Bob Kozlowski, club steward of the Donegal American Legion. “If we wait until February, it’s going to be a catastrophe.”
Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or [email protected].