A view of the pull tab machines at the VFW Sheehy Palmer Post 6776 on Monday, May 29, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. The pull tab machines are a gaming machine that the veteran’s posts are allowed to have. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)
It was Memorial Day, yet empty bar stools and tables lined the inside of the Sheehy-Palmer Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.
A few years ago, the Albany post, where about a dozen people lingered that afternoon, might have been bustling on a day the nation honors its veterans.
But the quiet atmosphere inside the Delaware Avenue building last week is becoming more familiar across the state as VFW posts and the halls of other charitable veterans’ organizations often sit nearly empty, with many closing their doors for good. It’s a combination of older veterans dying off and younger veterans showing little interest in joining what are often perceived as old-man drinking clubs that offer little in the way of modern-day entertainment, according to VFW officials.
Still, while entertainment and social events are part of what’s lured many veterans through the doors of VFW posts, it’s the camaraderie for service members, some scarred by war, that has been an integral part of the organizations’ mission and purpose.
“The World War II guys would tell you, you’re never really the same and it’s easier to relate to that narrow group,” said James Ader, an Albany County Veteran Services coordinator who was a combat infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Even the mental hygiene professionals, they know how to recognize it but they don’t know what it’s like. … Having a place that is ours, where we can break bread, makes all the difference.”
Still, in New York, the number of active VFW posts has declined in the past three years from 640 to about 450, according to VFW officials.
In response, VFW leaders, in league with other charitable organizations, including the Elks, are pressing state leaders to aid their survival by authorizing the use of video-gaming terminals that would replace the antiquated “bell jar” pull-tab games that have been a hallmark of their fundraising efforts since 1975.
“We’re not looking at the machines as an end-all and be-all,” said Kirby T. Hannan, an Vietnam-era Air Force veteran and lobbyist who has helped the VFW garner support from state leaders. “In the last 15 years, the bell jar proceeds, which are 90 percent of all of charitable gamings’ revenue, have dropped by 50 percent.”
The state constitution, which prohibits gambling except in certain limited circumstances that have in some instances required amendments, has at times been an obstacle in getting modern-day games of chance approved. The constitution requires that charitable games be “rigidly regulated” and often leaves it to local municipalities to authorize gaming in their communities. But Hannan said bell jar games have been legal for more than 40 years and all they are asking the governor and Legislature to do is to allow them to offer a modern-day version of the game using a video terminal.
“We’re not thinking that this is a panacea, we just think that if we’re going to attract newer members we really have to get more visual … and entertain our existing members in a new format,” he said.
Sen. John J. Bonacic, the Republican chairman of the state Senate’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, has been pressing for passage of a bill that would authorize the nonprofit organizations to implement video gaming terminals. But the measure has repeatedly met resistance in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
“If this legislation doesn’t get done many of these not-for-profit and charitable organizations will close, and if they close it will be a loss to the community,” Bonacic said. “These organizations do multiple charitable things, not exclusive only to veterans … including youth programs and scholarships for poor kids.”
In November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that was approved by the Legislature and would have allowed charitable organizations such as VFW posts and Elks Lodges to offer internet raffle sales. Cuomo said “constitutional infirmities” in the measure required he veto the legislation, even though he supported it.
“This law would allow charitable raffles to veer into the realm of commercialized activity that the Constitution specifically directs the Legislature to forbid,” Cuomo wrote. He added, however, “I recognize the need to modernize charitable gaming laws. I am therefore directing the New York State Gaming Commission to work with the bill’s sponsors and interested stakeholders to recommend appropriate changes to achieve this goal.”
The potential “commercialization” of charitable gaming, which the state constitution prohibits, has been one of the concerns of the state’s Gaming Commission, including in its evaluation of video-gaming machines.
“This is a deliberative process, it’s not being taken lightly because of the potential implications it has not just for the charitable organizations but for charitable gaming in general,” said Robert Williams, the deputy secretary for gaming. “We don’t want to just jump in and we’re very concerned that we meet the requirements of the state constitution.”
In a related effort, the Gaming Commission in March conducted the first of five public hearings across the state to get input on how to improve charitable gaming regulations. And in the recent state budget that was passed, Cuomo included multiple proposals to “modernize laws to make it easier for charitable organizations to raise funds through gaming, including raffles, bell jar and other types of games.”
“For too long, red tape and outdated laws on the books have inhibited the efforts of well-intentioned charities to raise crucial funds in support of their good work,” Cuomo said in a statement, citing organizations such as the VFW, Elks, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and churches and volunteer fire departments.
The governor’s proposals, most of which were approved in the recently enacted budget, included increasing prize limits for charitable gaming; allowing payments by checks — but not credit cards was also proposed — for raffle tickets; permitting organizations to conduct games in additional locations; online gaming forms and applications to minimize paperwork; reducing from three years to one the number of years an organization need to be in business to conduct games of chance; and restrictions to allow online advertising and off-premise advertising.
But the governor’s measures did not include any proposal for allowing video gaming terminals in VFW posts and other charitable organizations, leaving the issue with the Legislature.
“There’s no downside in my mind,” Bonacic said. “I know we’re going to get it done in the Senate and I’m hopeful the Assembly is on board.”
Ader, who is a VFW member in Albany, said video gaming may not prevent the continuing closure of posts but many members feel it would give the organizations a better chance to draw new people through the doors.
“There’s just not enough people to go around,” Ader said, noting that fewer people serve in armed services than in past decades. “After World War II, everyone came back and everyone had VFWs in their neighborhood. Now, there are none that are expanding. What we’re going to end up doing is consolidating a lot of posts.”