Ohio House amends elections bill to allow ‘instant bingo’ machines at fraternal organizations

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio House has amended and passed an elections bill so it now also includes language that will allow fraternal halls and other charitable organizations to legally set up slot machine-like “electronic instant bingo” machines.

The House voted 78 to 6 on Thursday night to pass Senate Bill 194, which originally aimed to strengthen standards for third-party vendors that provide voter registration software, and added a cybersecurity official to the state panel that certifies voting machine. The original bill was backed by Secretary of State Frank LaRose and unanimously cleared the Senate last month.

But the new version also incorporates House Bill 282, a gaming bill that passed the House last May. The bill allows charitable organizations that offer “instant bingo,” which resembles lottery tickets, to also offer “instant electronic bingo,” which resembles slot machines. The new machines would be regulated by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which already regulates charitable bingo games.

The combination of two seemingly unrelated bills is a legislative tradition as lawmakers wind down their lame duck session. Thursday is the last scheduled session for the House for the year, although it’s possible more sessions could be scheduled before the end of the year.

Maggie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for LaRose, criticized the House for adding the unrelated subject matter into the bill.

“As cyber security threats continue to evolve, we need to be prepared to defend against bad actors. We’ll continue to advocate for concurrence on SB194 in the Senate. If the amendment inserted by the House ultimately sinks the original bill, it will hurt all Ohioans, and the responsible parties will have to answer for that,” she said.

The bill now would go back to the Senate for consideration, after which it would head to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk.

HB 282 is backed by charitable organizations, who call it a modernization of games they’ve long already offered, and a necessary attraction for groups struggling with waning revenues amid the coronavirus pandemic. The machines have been the subject of a years-long legal fight, with then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2013 calling them illegal gambling devices.

But current Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office has testified in favor of the new bill, describing it as a commonsense approach to regulate something that’s long been in a legal grey area.

“It’s a vital piece of legislation for our veterans groups around the state, and does nothing more than aid in modernizing how these groups already operate,” state Rep. Scott Wiggam, a Wooster Republican, said in a floor speech.

State Rep. Brigid Kelly, a Cincinnati Democrat, spoke against the added electronic bingo language, saying it deserved more scrutiny.

“We have a rather complicated topic stuck in a voting bill in the waning hour of this General Assembly,” Kelly said.

The bill has drawn concern from mental-health advocates, as well as socially conservative organizations, which are uneasy about any expansion of gambling. State disclosures also show other gaming interests lobbied on the bill, including casino operators like JACK Ohio and Penn National Gaming.

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