COLUMBIA - Legislators advanced a bill on Wednesday governing how charities, schools and churches would hold raffles if voters change the state's constitution to allow the charitable gaming.
If voters decide to make raffles legal, nonprofits would be allowed to hold up to four of them each year under the bill approved by the Senate. The bill is headed to the House.
It's taken several weeks of debate and years of failed attempts to advance such a bill. Approval comes after a protracted debate from gambling opponents who said they feared it could usher in all-out gambling.
Currently, the only legal raffle is the state lottery. But nonprofit officials say raffles happen daily all over the state, with organizers and ticket buyers alike often not realizing they're illegal.
Whether law enforcement cracks down on a fundraiser largely depends on whether someone complains.
"I can't believe in the 21st century, we're talking about the ability of charities to have raffles, particularly when the argument comes from folks who say government is too intrusive ... who nonetheless want to micromanage people's lives," said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.
Under the bill, no raffle ticket could cost more than $100. Each prize would be limited to $40,000 in value, and all prizes in a single event would be limited to a worth of $250,000. No raffle could be held on Christmas Day, or between midnight and 10 a.m. At least 90 percent of money collected would have to go to the charitable cause.
Sen. David Thomas successfully fought a provision that would have allowed nonprofits to hold up to two "casino nights." Though it specified that any winnings of casino-like games would be raffle tickets, not money, to go into pots for prizes at the end of an event, Thomas argued the gambling industry would find loopholes to operate full-fledged casinos.
The amended bill specifically bars casino-type games and electronic games of any sort.
But Thomas said he still fears abuse, considering the video poker industry sued its way into existence after a two-word change to state law in 1986. After a decade of fighting, the Legislature managed to ban those games in 2000.
"Even though we tried to put in prohibitions, if there's a way around it, they'll figure it out," said Thomas, R-Greenville.
He criticizes the maximum yearly worth of prizes a nonprofit can raffle off - $1 million - as too high.
"This is going to be raffle-city. The state will be turned into a raffle mecca," he said.
Legalizing raffles requires changing the constitution. The Senate also gave key approval to a bill to put the question before voters. But that measure faces another Senate vote, and the required two-thirds approval it needs to advance could prove difficult.
"If they want the right to vote on raffles, they better speak up," McConnell said.
Previous attempts to change the state's 1802 gambling laws combined both raffles and legalizing in-home poker and other social games. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee separately passed a bill allowing dice and card games between friends. When the full Senate will debate that bill is uncertain.