- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

WATERTOWN, Mass.Pauline LaCava can rattle off locations of bingo games that closed in her hometown as fast as she can scan her bingo sheet, dabbing pink ink marks on numbers as they are called at St. Patrick Church in Watertown.

“There used to be one every night of the week,” said Mrs. LaCava, 80, seated at the rear of the Catholic church basement, where the night’s top prize will be $330. “I definitely feel the casinos hurt bingos. Foxwoods has the bingo every day and every night.”

Bingo had been a reliable source of revenue for churches, schools, youth sports leagues and veterans organizations since the early 1970s. The games have been on the decline for several years, in part because of aging players, smoking bans and the lure of Keno and casinos.

Now, bingo players and the organizations that benefit from the games in this area worry that proposed casinos would be the final blow.

Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, on Monday announced he wants to license three resort casinos in Massachusetts in a bid to generate $450 million in annual tax revenue. The licenses would be put up for bid in a competitive process open to Indian tribes and casino companies.

“It will close us down,” said the Rev. Francis Daley, pastor of Sts. Martha and Mary Church in Lakeville, which borders Middleborough, the town in which the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe wants to build a $1 billion casino. “We cannot compete with their prizes.”

The Thursday night game attracts 120 players, raising $40,000 per year for the church, helping pay bills at a time when overall contributions to Catholic churches are down.

Bingo revenue in Massachusetts is at a 32-year low, according to the charitable gaming division of the Massachusetts Lottery. Gross revenue last year was $102 million, the lowest since 1974, the third year of legalized bingo in Massachusetts. It was $252 million in 1993, but has slid every year since.

Organizations get less than 20 percent of the gross revenue after paying out prizes, expenses and 5 percent state tax.

Bingo organizers who see the effects elsewhere said they have reason to worry.

In Connecticut, Foxwoods Resort Casino opened a bingo hall in 1986 and its full casino in 1992. Mohegan Sun opened four years later. From about that point, charitable bingo revenues have fallen. Gross revenue from charitable bingo fell from $34.6 million in 1995 to $23.7 million last year, according to Connecticut’s Division of Special Revenue.

In the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., bingo receipts fell by 36 percent from 2000 to 2006, including a 9.6 percent drop last year, said spokesman Kevin Keenan, who blamed Canadian casinos and a workplace smoking ban.

In Ohio, the Aquinas Central Catholic School in Steubenville, located near two West Virginia casinos, eliminated bingo two years ago after a drop in attendance.

“Slot machines, craps and blackjack — on a relative scale — are very exciting and are going to draw people away from bingo,” said Dartmouth College economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, who co-wrote a 2005 report examining the economic effects of legalized gambling in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts casino debate reignited this year after the Mashpee Wampanoags won federal recognition as a tribe, bought land in Middleborough and made public plans for a resort casino to compete with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. The Aquinnah Wampanoag Indians have declared that they will open a casino if their Mashpee counterparts do the same.

Several other commercial casino proposals have been floated, but the legislature still needs to approve expanded gambling before a full-scale casino can be built.

But even without legislative approval, recognition gives tribes the right to operate bingo parlors, and the Mashpee Wampanoags have said they will do that in Middleborough if they can’t build a casino.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s four bishops, urged the legislature to reject the plan. In a statement Monday, it said casinos will create addicted gamblers and that “the harm will reach far beyond individual gamblers by affecting their spouses, children, dependents, employers and the community in which they live.”

Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley has declined several interview requests on the subject.

On his blog, however, he wrote that casino gambling “is fraught with many dangers for a community,” including gambling addiction. He said the state should raise taxes rather than rely on casinos, “which will result in many ruined lives, ruined businesses and ruined neighborhoods.”

Cardinal O’Malley didn’t mention bingo, but did note that the church’s position on gambling is “nuanced.”

That could be because about a third of the existing 280 bingo licensees, according to an Associated Press review, are affiliated with the Catholic church — parishes, schools and groups with Catholic ties, such as the Knights of Columbus.

A reader’s response on Cardinal O’Malley’s blog took him to task: “There are as many compulsive bingo addicts as there are compulsive casino gamblers. Are you prepared to ban bingo in the Boston area?”

The cardinal did not respond.

Some said there is little comparison between casinos and bingo.

“It’s more than just a gambling situation,” Mr. Daley said. “People going to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun aren’t going to socialize. A lot of them have supper here before the game begins. It’s a way for people to check in with each other.”

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