Some stadium backers want to expand pull-tab gambling

Electronic pull tab
King Wilson, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, shows off a wireless electronic pull tab terminal that thousands of charitable gambling operations would like to adopt. A similar device offers Internet-linked bingo.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

A virtual reboot of one of Minnesota's best-known gambling traditions is getting renewed interest as a funding source for a Vikings stadium.

Backers say electronic pull-tabs could also help boost the hospitality industry and revive charitable gamblong. But opponents say it's a dangerous experiment in making gambling easy.

If the Vikings win a new stadium, O'Gara's bar in St. Paul might be where they cross the financial goal line.

Owner Dan O'Gara is one of the state's staunchest backers of a plan to literally power up bar gambling and send tens of millions of dollars to the state. He and other bar owners want legal clearance to put electronic pull-tabs and Internet bingo in nearly 2,900 Minnesota bars.

"We on purpose didn't dedicate the funds to any specific thing, and we thought we'd leave it up to the governor and the legislature how to spend the state's portion of the money," O'Gara said. "And if that's the Vikings stadium, then I'm all for it."

Pull-tabs are paper gambling tickets, sized a little smaller than playing cards. They have three or more tear-away tabs that unveil a pattern, somewhat like slot machines.

They're often sold from clear cases that hold 3,000-card lots with a fixed number of prizes. Gambling operators usually post big prizes as they're won. Players often try to gauge how many tickets are left in a set, known as a deal, and how many prizes are among them.

By law, tickets cost $5 or less. The biggest prizes are usually worth a couple of hundred dollars.

Lately, pull-tabs have fallen on hard times. They've been subject to major tax changes. They're quaint, even antiquated, in a world of smartphones and iPads. Gross receipts have dropped by a third since their peak in 2000 at $1.5 billion.

Electronic pull tab
Boosters want to put as many as a dozen electronic pull tab terminals in eligible Minnesota bars as part of a digital wireless upgrade of pull tab games. They would supplement, not replace, the paper versions.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Charitable gambling operators like VFWs and hockey booster clubs think they can regain that ground with a digital upgrade — putting pull tabs on laptop-sized, wireless touch screens patrons can play at a table or at a bar.

"All we're attempting to do, really, is modernize the current games we already have, bingo and pull tabs," said King Wilson, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, the industry's trade group. "Take them into the 21st century, use technology that exists today that wasn't there when charitable gambling came about in 1985."

And there'll be money. Maybe lots of it.

Pull-tabs once paid $65 million in taxes to the state. In 2009, that number fell to $36 million. Boosters think electronic pull tabs could more than double that.

Charities want a cut of the increase, to counterbalance a tax hike dating back to 1989.

"At 46 percent, when you look at the state corporate tax rate, however that works, Minnesota charitable gambling non-profits are paying many of them, four-to-five times any other for profit business," Wilson said.

Supporters hope to split new revenue with a stadium and tax relief. Bar owners like O'Gara said the games will help win back patrons and jobs lost to the poor economy and to the state smoking ban, and even to the lower 0.08 blood alcohol DWI standard.

But gambling is a political lightning rod in Minnesota.

Tribal casinos expect electronic pull-tabs to cut into their business, but not as much as a Minneapolis casino or slots at horse tracks, said John McCarthy executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents the state's 18 tribal-run casinos.

"We're not supporting it, obviously. We're not supporting any expansion, but this one, of all the proposals, I guess, was the most innocuous," he said.

But even with tribal acquiescence, the proposal will be strongly opposed at the Capitol. Nearly a dozen lawmakers, including State Senator David Hann, R-Eden Praire, spoke out against new gambling last week at the Capitol.

"I think casino gambling and electronic forms of gambling are the most addictive, and the most problematic," Hann said. "Anything that serves to promote or encourage more of that, I think is really bad."

But Gov. Mark Dayton said he will consider electronic pull-tabs. He's expected to recommend a stadium package next week.

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