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Bingo! 

Whether it's an end-run around video poker or not, video bingo is here to stay, and there are lingering questions about how this burgeoning industry should be regulated.

There's always a bit of gambling going on in the Louisiana Senate, whether it's proceeding with a bill that doesn't have the votes it needs for passage or pushing an issue that's politically volatile. Yet gambling was never as front-and-center as the sight of state Sen. Danny Martiny, a Kenner Republican, resting his right hand on a brightly colored electronic video bingo machine called "Flash Back" earlier this month. The machine was a prop, and a very effective one at that.

If Martiny hadn't told senators otherwise, many probably would have mistaken the bingo contraption for a video poker machine. It had a slot for crisp bills to be inserted under the console, its monitor displayed huge 7s and hearts, the casing had a tie-dye paint job and psychedelic flowers, and it even had all the right bells and whistles. Still, it was a video bingo machine, a reflection of a new craze that's sweeping many parts of the state — mostly in parishes where video poker was voted out in 1996.

Martiny and others argue that such machines are masquerading as slots or video poker, which are legal in some parishes — and highly regulated (read: taxed) by the state. The state gets no direct share of video bingo revenues, however. That's why Martiny and others are backing House Bill 280 during the current legislative session. They say the state needs to curb the growth of this relatively new industry.

To hear some tell it, video bingo was never intended to gain as big a foothold as it has in Louisiana. Some form of video bingo machines have been around — legally — since the 1980s, but Louisiana recently has seen an onslaught of machines that closely resemble video poker. Moreover, many bingo machines can be found packed into large video bingo parlors that smack more of truck-stop casinos than the average mom-and-pop charity bingo hall.

The biggest difference between the two video games is that bingo is tied — officially, at least — to charity. According to state law, video bingo distributors negotiate contracts with charities looking to use the machines as a source of revenue, and then the charities negotiate separate contracts with bingo parlors to rent space for the games. The entire process is supervised by the Office of Charitable Gaming in the state Department of Revenue — as opposed to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board and the Louisiana State Police, which oversee video poker. State law allows each hall to operate 35 machines at a time, and charities can sponsor 15 six-hour playing sessions each month. Sponsoring charities receive 45 percent of the take.

As for how much money is being made, that figure varies from one source to the next. One operation, Oak Ridge Construction and Property Management of New Iberia, sent a letter to local charities earlier this year promising they could pull down as much as $100,000 a year. That's among the reasons Sen. Joe McPherson, a Woodworth Democrat, pushed an amendment to House Bill 280 to outlaw video bingo by 2010 in parishes where video poker is already banned. "This is back-door gambling coming in the guise of charitable gaming," McPherson says.

House Bill 280 by Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, would also bar any new video bingo machines that resemble slots or video poker machines from being introduced in Louisiana after Aug. 15. Wooton's bill offers a multi-layered policy that has driven a wedge between some in the gaming industry — and it even threatens to come between Gov. Bobby Jindal and parts of his conservative base. Jindal has stayed clear of the issue so far, but many of his conservative supporters feel he promised them he would halt the expansion of gambling.

On another front, the issue has produced a face-off between video poker interests and video bingo interests. "[This legislation] strengthens video poker's position," says Bay Ingram of Slidell, who has contributed money to Jindal and invested heavily in video bingo. "It literally gives them a monopoly."

The poker-versus-bingo war was eminently predictable. Just as video poker revenues have skyrocketed, the number of video bingo machines under state control has risen from fewer than 300 in 2005 to more than 1,000 as of this month. But nearly 80 percent of the licensed bingo machines can be found in parishes that prohibit video poker. The Office of Charitable Gambling is presently reviewing 26 additional bingo hall applications, on top of the 37 already operating around the state. Of those 37 bingo halls, 32 offer devices that look like slot machines. Opponents of video bingo echo McPherson's comment that bingo machines have a leg up on video poker machines, which had to win voter approval in 1996.

The proposed legislation also pits the video bingo industry against itself. "This has been around for years, and now all of a sudden it's getting all of this attention," says Val Jahnke, who operates Louisiana Bingo Supply, one of the oldest and largest vendors in the state. "I think it's because a couple of the suppliers want to eliminate the competition."

As for community involvement, some parts of the state have seen a backlash against the bingo machines. In Hammond, Citizens for a Better Community recently presented the city council with a petition to ban video bingo. That movement could lead to a referendum against video bingo in November. The city presently has three video bingo halls.

For the next three weeks, lawmakers and Jindal will grapple with how to regulate this industry. Some predict the Office of Charitable Gaming will be deluged with new applications if the August deadline is adopted.

For now, video bingo is the sleeper issue of the session — much like video poker was in 1991. It's an entirely new division of gaming "that was never intended by the Legislature," Martiny says.

Earl Long once remarked about prostitution, "You can make it illegal, but you can't make it unpopular." Video bingo, by contrast, appears to be perfectly legal — but not universally popular.

click to enlarge It looks like a video poker machine, but the video bingo machine is legal even where video poker is not regulated or taxed like other gaming devices.
  • It looks like a video poker machine, but the video bingo machine is legal even where video poker is not regulated or taxed like other gaming devices.
click to enlarge Sen. Danny Martiny
  • Sen. Danny Martiny
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