February 6, 2009

Bill would correct regulation that hurts parish festivals

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Indiana’s economy is not the only area suffering a setback. Parish festivals have also suffered a setback due to tougher laws regulating charitable gaming aimed primarily at keeping professional gamblers out.

Regulations promulgated by the Indiana Gaming Commission in the winter of 2008 state that if an individual works at a festival, the individual may not participate in any of the festival events. This rule negatively impacts a parish in a number of ways. Many small parishes rely on participation of parish members, who also work at the festivals, as much as they do on non-members and the public at large for the festival to be a success.

Two Catholic lawmakers, Rep. Mark Messmer (R-Jasper) and Rep. Matt Bell (R-Avilla), have co-authored a bill, HB 1664, to allow festival workers to participate in activities other than the game they are working. The measure will only apply to festivals.

Messmer said Ernest Yelton, the executive director of the Gaming Commission, has allowed some flexibility in the regulation of the statute, including exempting food workers, and those participating in a multi-day festival, but without a change in the statute the commission cannot allow what the statute prohibits.

Messmer, a member of Holy Family Parish in Jasper, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese and who co-chairs his parish’s picnic festival with his wife, said they had 184 gaming workers and 310 food workers at their last event.

“We have over half the parish working the event, and a smaller parish might have everyone working the event,” said Messmer. “Legally, no one can participate if they are working.

“In the Evansville Diocese, we were pretty adamant about getting the regulations out to everyone so that we wouldn’t be fined,” said Messmer. “We saw in every parish in the county probably between 5 to 10 percent minimum income reductions. These events were all well attended and had good weather. The problem was people at the parish were complying with the law and not participating because they were working the event,” said the Jasper lawmaker.

“What HB 1664 would do is allow individuals who work at the event also to participate in the event as long as they were not playing the game they are working at,” he said. “In reality, that’s probably what everyone would have done, but we’ve been pretty adamant in the Evansville Diocese about getting training out so that we all knew the rules and followed them.

“There were a couple of problems that we saw this year. Not only have we seen a loss of income, but the people who worked at the charitable event this year said, ‘Yes, I’ll work this year, but next year I’m not working.’

“Half the fun of working an event is once you’re done working, you can then participate in the festivities of the event. So then if you don’t have workers or the volunteers necessary, the parish won’t be able to man the event in future years,” said Messmer.

Rep. Matt Bell (R-Avilla), a member of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Avilla, Ind., in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese and co-author of the bill, said, “I serve as the ranking minority member of the public policy committee, which is where we deal with issues of gaming and other controversial things like alcohol policy. And charitable gaming laws are hard to crack.

“Charitable gaming laws cannot be about the good and honest churches and community service organizations who are trying to raise money,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we have to write laws that keep the bad actors out. I think that makes this type of law very difficult to write,” said Bell.

“What we want to craft [in the law] is the opportunity to include the parish family in events, not exclude them,” said Bell. “I don’t think the choice should be, ‘Will you work the event or participate in it?’ The law must be carefully crafted, and I think Rep. Messmer has done a great job at giving us a strong starting place.”

A similar bill was introduced during the 2008 legislative session, but the chairman of the House Public Policy Committee where the bill was assigned did not give the bill a hearing so then it died.

House Bill 1664 returns to the same House panel where the chairman, Rep. Trent Van Haaften (D-Mount Vernon), will again determine the bill’s fate. Rep. Van Haaften has not decided whether or not he will hear the bill this year.

The Indiana Catholic Conference supports the bill. Calls to your representative to support the bill will encourage Rep. Van Haaften to give it a hearing. Bills must clear the house of origin by Feb. 25.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To learn more about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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