Electronic pull tabs have boomed in North Dakota, prompting questions about the future of charitable gambling in the state and how to best regulate the Las Vegas-style machines.
The flashy devices have raised key questions about where they can be located, such as gas stations and convenience stores, and what organizations can conduct the gambling. E-tabs function like slot machines. They appeared in 2018 after approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I think we’ve seen certain things go astray a little bit, where the cattle have gotten out of the corral, and it’s beyond what the intent of our laws are,” said Republican state Sen. Janne Myrdal, who chairs an interim legislative panel that on Thursday began a yearlong study of North Dakota’s charitable gambling issues, part of a bill that sought to address e-tab concerns.
Myrdal told The Associated Press she’d like the study to produce “palatable answers” for the next legislative session in 2025, including where the machines can be located.
Lawmakers in this year’s session raised concerns about specific establishments, such as gas stations, having the machines and minors accessing e-tabs. The machines’ proliferation — 4,700 of them statewide — also has brought concerns related to tribal nations, whose casinos are economic drivers, as well as regulating the devices and even the potential for money laundering.
North Dakota’s top gambling regulator sees the study as an opportunity to educate lawmakers.
“This has become huge, and they need to understand how it works,” state Gaming Division Director Deb McDaniel told the AP.
E-tabs in the fiscal year that ended June 30 generated nearly $2 billion of gross proceeds from cash and replayed winnings, capturing $205 million for charities, including just over $72 million specifically for charitable purposes. Players put more than $687 million of cash into e-tabs in fiscal 2023.
State law does not dictate where charitable gambling takes place, but traditionally it’s been in bars. In recent years, a loose interpretation of “alcoholic beverage establishment” led to the machines appearing in a handful of gas stations and convenience stores.
The bill mandating the study also redefined that term, specifically excluding gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores and liquor stores, but grandfathered the four gas stations and c-stores with e-tabs.
But that new definition doesn’t address other establishments that wouldn’t be considered a traditional bar but can serve and dispense alcohol, such as hair salons and indoor golf centers, according to McDaniel.
Brett Narloch has been frustrated about how his truck stop near Grassy Butte has drawn attention in Bismarck for having e-tabs.
“We jumped through all the hoops to get the licenses, to get the gaming site approval. We’ve not broken any of the rules. We’ve been great. We’ve not had any complaints, and so it’s like, ‘OK, why is there a target on our back now?’” Narloch told the AP.
The oil field truck stop, which has a bar and restaurant, has 10 machines in an enclosed area with one entrance and signs noting only people 21 and older are allowed in, he said.
Narloch said he hopes lawmakers strive for clarity for businesses and understand the benefits of charitable gambling. He cites over $100,000 generated from his truck stop’s machines that have gone toward local charitable purposes, such as equipment for firefighters and emergency responders, and park improvements — items “property tax dollars don’t have to fund,” he added.
North Dakota’s constitution gives nonprofits the privilege to conduct charitable gambling. McDaniel said the activity is “not supposed to be a gaming industry.”
Her office has licensed more than 320 charitable organizations to conduct the gambling, such as public safety, fraternal and veterans groups, and also “public-spirited organizations.” But the legal definition of a “public-spirited organization” is broad, McDaniel said.
Recent license applicants have included organizations that put on community events and seem more business-oriented than charitable in nature, McDaniel said.
The gambling landscape is evolving, with North Dakota on “this cusp” as electronics boom and online formats loom, she said. In recent years, efforts to legalize sports betting in the state have failed in the Legislature.
“I think it would help the state tremendously in understanding where do we want to go from here, because it’s not just bingo and raffles anymore,” McDaniel said.
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Source: US News