Our Opinion: Charity game nights under fire as lottery gambling continues

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Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill authorizing charity game nights for fear that the gambling law carve-out would become a Trojan horse for video poker operators.

If sustained, the Wednesday veto could dim fundraising prospects for nonprofit groups throughout North Carolina on the basis of a prediction whose outcome can’t be any worse than the state-run lottery we already have.

House Bill 511 would allow Internal Revenue Service-designated charities, social welfare organizations, labor and agricultural groups and chambers of commerce that have existed for at least five years to hold four annual game nights. Participants could legally play casino-style games, but the bill requires prizes to be awarded by raffle — no cash payouts.

Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore, introduced the bipartisan bill as a boon to nonprofit groups who use the events to generate buzz, entice participation and meet steep fundraising goals.

Charities already hold game nights, and their status under the law is nebulous. While the gatherings themselves are legal, games of chance played for any item of value are verboten. Some groups try to skirt the law by suggesting entry fees are just voluntary donations, masking winnings as door prizes and contorting game rules to avoid the overt appearance of gambling.

The semantics seem to satisfy police. Busting well-to-do donors raising money for do-gooders doesn’t rate as a high priority for law enforcement. HB 511 sought to explicitly allow the games, but Cooper says casino nights could allow professional gaming companies to wedge their foot in the door.

“I am not opposed to legitimate nonprofits holding an occasional ‘game night’ to help with donations to worthy causes,” Cooper wrote in his veto message. “However, I believe this legislation as written could cause unintended problems. North Carolina law enforcement has fought for years against the for-profit video poker industry, and legitimizing charitable gambling in this way could give video poker a new way to infiltrate our communities.”

For decades, our state has frittered away taxpayer money and wasted cops’ time enforcing laws against the victimless crime of private gambling. We can thank a purple-state coalition of conservatives who believe games of chance are immoral and liberals who consider them predatory drains on the poor.

Both factions succumb to smug paternalism, faltering in their commitment to personal freedom and its corollary, personal responsibility.

The North Carolina Education Lottery raked in nearly $2.4 billion in sales during the 2016 fiscal year. Proceeds bolster public schools and pay for a problem gambling helpline.

Why not tax and regulate video poker, video sweepstakes and similar games? It can’t credibly be a moral issue for officials who are OK with government-run gambling.

Lawmakers ought to override Cooper’s veto in order to take North Carolina nonprofits that hold game nights out of legal limbo. While they’re at it, they can go a step further to end the superficial sanctimony and rank hypocrisy of a gambling ban in a lottery state.