AUGUSTA – The American Legion and other veterans’ organizations in Maine are facing financial woes as bingo revenues dry up, resulting in fewer donations back to the community and officers available to help veterans with their claims, they say.
Local posts are struggling to keep their doors open as once-frequent bingo players turn to lottery tickets and casinos with hopes of winning a much bigger jackpot, officials say. Now, they are once again pushing legislation to allow them to put video poker machines in their clubs to try to compete.
American Legion Post 10 in Livermore Falls used to host as many as 60 bingo players every night, but the number of players dwindled, forcing the post to stop holding the games in 2011, executive director Don Simoneau said.
Today, it relies heavily on fundraising dinners that bring in about $200 a month to pay off growing insurance and heating bills, he said.
“But $100 to $200 a month isn’t going to keep the post’s doors open,” he said. “We’re constantly selling raffle tickets or chasing money, and it is tough.”
Maine’s first casino opened in Bangor in 2005 and another opened in Oxford five years later. Officials say members no longer want to pay $20 for a game of bingo to win back $40 when they could put that money toward a chance of winning thousands at the casinos.
The state’s 174 Legion posts saw net bingo revenue drop by nearly $130,000 between 2009 and 2011, according to state police figures. All nonprofits, including non-veterans groups like the Elk Lodges, saw gross bingo revenue fall by more than $1 million.
The issue is being compounded by declining membership in veterans groups in Maine, and across the country, as World War II veterans die, said John Hargreaves, commander of the American Legion Department of Maine.
Maine’s American Legion has lost about 8,000 members over the last 20 years. For the organization, that means $100,000 less coming in every year in membership dues, Hargreaves said. Membership at Maine’s Veterans of Foreign Wars posts has declined by more than 10,000 over the last 20 years, said Thomas Lussier, the organization’s chief of staff.
That means that fewer dollars are going into programs the clubs have supported for decades, such as the Special Olympics, and fewer employees in posts that help veterans.
The Legion has had to cut two officers that assist veterans with their benefits at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Togus, Hargreaves said.
“Claims are taking longer for us to get processed. … We’re not able to process as many claims. So (veterans) either make some attempt to file those claims on their own or they don’t file them in some cases,” Hargreaves said.
The clubs hope that a new law, signed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage last session, will ease some of their concerns. It puts 2 percent of the net revenue generated from the casinos into a fund to provide some financial assistance to veterans groups.
But members say more needs to be done to ensure that the groups are around in the future to help advocate for veterans. The VFW has had to close one or two posts every year since the 1980s, said James Bachelder, former state commander.
“If we don’t have these groups there, then who is going to care?” he said.
And while they are once again advocating for legislation to allow the clubs to put video poker machines in their posts, their movement has met resistance. Lawmakers passed a similar bill last year, but it met strong opposition from anti-gambling groups and was vetoed by LePage.
The state has put a hold on any legislation related to gambling until a 20-member commission can study its impact on the state and develop a competitive bidding process for future casino contracts. Simoneau is representing the veterans groups in that commission.
“If things don’t change, we’re in dire straits, I believe,” he said. “You can have a house and I can have a house, but if I can’t afford to heat it, light it, what happens to that house? You lock the door. And the veterans hall is the same thing.”