A new era in Minnesota gambling could be just hours away if a state board approves electronic pull-tab games that the Legislature is relying on to help pay for a new Vikings stadium.
Dan O'Gara, the owner of O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul, says he hopes to turn on the first game at his bar on Snelling Avenue at 4 p.m., kicking off what is projected to be a $1.3 billion expansion of the state's lawful gambling industry.
The change could than double the existing paper pull tab trade, which runs about $990 million a year now.
"We're very excited," O'Gara said, as the devices -- iPad tablets with dedicated gambling software -- were being programmed and charged up in his back room last night. "Pending board approval, we are going to be up and running today, this afternoon, for the happy hour crowd, and have all the Vikings fans up here playing electronic pull tabs."
The Minnesota Gambling Control Board meets in Roseville this morning. The Legislature approved the new electronic pull tabs, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed the measure into law in May.
The state is expecting the games to bring in as much as $72 million in new revenue. That money will be used to pay the debt on the state's share of a new $1 billion stadium being built for the Vikings in Minneapolis. The state has pledged about $350 million to the construction.
For their part, charities are hoping the games will revive a flagging pull-tab and bingo industry. Charitable gambling has seen a steady decline for the last 10 years, dropping from a high of nearly $1.5 billion in 2000, and down by more than a third from that high in 2010. Gambling managers think electronic versions of their games will attract new and younger players to their operations and eventually let them join games electronically, for high-stakes bingo and other variations.
"We definitely have interest in electronics. We definitely are going to have them," says Genny Hinnenkamp, gambling manager with the Irving Community Club in Duluth. "I think between the (electronic) pull-tabs and the bingo I think it'll be great."
Bar owners are also counting on the machines for a revival. They say that their business has been hurt by the statewide indoor smoking ban, by tougher DWI enforcement and by the downturn in the economy. "We're excited about the patronage into our social clubs and our service clubs," says Frank Ball, the executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. "And this is the first thing that has come along that I've seen some excitement about. Something new. Something different."
Not everyone is excited, however. The Taxpayers League of Minnesota has spoken against the plan, calling the expansion a tax increase in all but name.
The Minnesota Family Council also opposed the expansion. President Tom Prichard told the House Tax Committee in April that the expansion could have dire consequences.
"This looks like an innocuous change, but it's a really dramatic change," Prichard said. "Electronic video gambling is really a predatory product... And I think you need to realize that video gambling is very addictive. It's been compared to crack cocaine in terms of the high that comes from gambling."
But Nevada-based gambling entrepreneur John Acres, who makes the first batch of iPad-based electronic pull tabs, says he thinks the games will be primarily and entertainment option. He says that he thinks the hand-held games will be readily available and adaptable to social situations, like screen sharing or group play. He showed off a smaller iPhone version of the game in St. Paul last night and says he hopes to roll out that version soon.
"Minnesota will be the first to go live," Acres said, as he watched the games being prepared at O'Gara's last night. "Virginia passed their legislation before Minnesota did. But Minnesota got it done first. This is the start of the future. I believe we will see this kind of gaming in 20, maybe 30 other states within the next five or six years. So, Minnesota is absolutely the leader, and this is the start of a brand new industry."