Your humble narrator has a knack for winning raffles. Well, perhaps "winning" isn't the right term. Without fail, a few dollars forked over for several colorful tickets brings forth misshapen Tupperware imparting the taste of Tupperware to all it touches or stoneware bowls apparently designed by a visually impaired man with palsy or a model of a clipper ship that never should have left drydock.
This is the house-cluttering flotsam and jetsam certain to confuse future progeny, and to depress future attendees of an estate sale.
Clearly a better class of raffle, trafficking in a higher order of crap, is in order. So, news that a May 22 raffle right here in the city touting luxuriant prizes — iPads, 60-inch TVs, a trip to Ireland — would seem to be welcome.
Alas. This raffle comes with a cost beyond the $20 ticket. It's a San Francisco Police Officers Association fundraiser on behalf of the half-dozen federally indicted cops accused of running a dope ring out of Mission Station, impressing local junkies into indentured servitude, shaking down hapless, impoverished suspects like street thugs, and other assorted niceties.
Naturally, these men are innocent. So is everyone until proven guilty. Them's the rules. It also wouldn't be much of a union if it didn't stand up for its brethren until the bitter end. That is what is implied by the term "union."
It's one thing to fight — or fundraise — diligently for a heartfelt cause. It's another to be incentivized to do so via a desire for high-tech creature comforts or luxurious trips of the Let's Make a Deal variety.
Our calls to the Police Officers Association have gone unreturned; they are availing themselves of their right to remain silent. Fair enough. Tawdry behavior and moral failures are no crime.
But holding a raffle? You'd be surprised.
The concept of a raffle is simple enough that even people like your humble narrator, content with toxic Tupperware and secondhand boat models, can quickly grasp the concept. It turns out, however, that raffles are overseen at the statewide level by a branch of the Attorney General's office acting under the aegis of Penal Code Section 320.5. This section is subdivided into 13 subsections; its second subsection is further divided into four sub-subsections. That sub-subsection is composed of three sub-sub-subsections. The second sub-sub-subsection is branched into a pair of sub-sub-sub-subsections.
None of these mention Tupperware.
The pendulum of justice has reversed its polarity since the Wild Wild West era of charity raffles of the last decade. Former Republican State Sen. Bill Leonard recalls county sheriffs closing down church bingo nights — even while tribal casinos and legal card clubs raked in the cash a stone's throw away.
So, Penal Code Section 320.5 put an end to that in 2000 (busting up bingo night makes the Baby Jesus cry). But it started something more. In order to discern what charities may hold a raffle, the state must determine what a charity is and what a raffle is; this involves myriad sections and subsections. And then it must keep track of them: Thousands of California entities — including the San Francisco Police Officers Association Legal Defense Fund — are crammed into the teeming spreadsheets of the Registry of Charitable Trusts maintained on the Attorney General's website. All are expected to provide the state with their completed Form CT-NRP-2s by October in return for this privilege.
Wisdom gleaned from the 42 entries on the raffle section's FAQ page: You can't evade rules governing raffles by simply calling your raffle an "opportunity drawing"; you can't raffle off your house to pay the mortgage even if you donate the remaining funds to charity; and, yes, the 90/10 rule applies to 50/50 raffles.
Many of the answers on the FAQ page do, indeed, come with sub-answers.
Why do we run the ship of state this way? There's a complicated answer (it involves sub-answers) and a simple one: Because we can't have nice things.
If you don't define terms like "nonprofit" and "raffle," shady groups will commandeer them both. "If you're gonna have raffles, you need oversight," admits Leonard. That oversight, however, leads down the road of 42-question FAQ sections and sub-sections and sub-sub-sections.
But that's the nature of money and government. Exploitation begets rules, which begets more exploitation and more sophisticated forms of it. "Tax advisers make their money working in the gray areas," says Indiana University professor John Mikesell, an authority on state and local taxes. "It makes sense things would be murky. The money is in the murk."
One thing, however, isn't murky at all. When you win something in a raffle — crap like Tupperware and chintzy boat models — you're liable for the tax burden. It's on you to report the cash value, though of course things change when you introduce a higher order of crap.
For prizes valued at more than $600, San Francisco tax attorney Rob Wood says the charitable organization holding the raffle is mandated to hand winners a W-2G form. Sixty-inch televisions and extravagant European vacations would qualify here.
Exploring the irony of a deeply law-bound raffle for law-enforcement accused of breaking the law is more or less beyond the scope of this piece, but it's something to consider come May 22 as you wait to see if your number comes up.
In the meantime, Wood offers your humble narrator some free advice: "If you have a knack for winning stuff you don't need, and then you get a tax bill, you're doubly worse off.
"Maybe you should stop entering raffles."