There appears to be a lot of confusion and rewriting of history surrounding the debate at the Capitol regarding electronic pull tabs and charitable gambling. A May 15 “Local View” commentary in the News Tribune, headlined, “Charities’ pull-tab proceeds under attack in St. Paul,” may have misled readers on what the current proposal would do and what happened seven years ago to warrant a legislative correction.
As two individuals closely involved in the debate both then and now, we would like to set the record straight.
In 2012, the Minnesota Legislature authorized electronic pull tabs. Sen. Tom Bakk was one of the architects of the new e-pull-tab idea. This concept was developed as a new source of charitable-gambling revenue that would support existing charities as well as supply a new source of revenue to construct what is now known as US Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings.
Our nonprofit Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, or CAGE, has played an active role in debates regarding gambling at the Minnesota Legislature for nearly 20 years. This was especially true in 2012 when some in the Legislature proposed a new form of gambling: electronic pull tabs. CAGE raised concerns that these proposed new devices would quickly move beyond “mirroring” the paper products. Supporters of the change promised the new electronic games would only update the familiar paper product. We were skeptical about what the devices would eventually look like and the features they would include, so we worked with policymakers to include protections ensuring the new games were based on current paper pull tabs and that the electronic versions were prohibited from mimicking a slot machine or other similar forms of gambling.
Sen. Bakk was extremely helpful and listened to all sides involved in this contentious debate, and he came up with several thoughtful legislative amendments that allayed our concerns.
Those amendments put strict limits on how the new games would operate. The games were to be mere “facsimiles” of paper games and must not “mimic” slot machines. Because of these restrictions, CAGE and other stakeholders withdrew their opposition to electronic games.
Unfortunately, the protections in the law have failed to hold the games in check. This failure of state regulation has now resulted in a massive expansion of gambling, one that was never authorized by the Legislature.
Gambling research consistently tells us that electronic games can be highly addictive. Today’s electronic pull tabs, which include animated features similar to video games that are attractive to kids, are being played in more than 1,600 locations across the state, most of which are not age-restricted.
This much is true: Electronic games in more than 1,600 locations are no longer facsimiles of paper pull tabs and look and play like slot machines. Sen. Bakk uniquely knows what the games were intended to be. So, quite reasonably, he is now seeking to clarify the law in response to advances in game technology.
CAGE does not oppose charitable gambling or support efforts to end the activity. Sen. Bakk’s proposal in no way would end electronic charitable gaming. Make no mistake, electronic pull tabs and bingo games are here to stay. We all support the work these valuable Minnesota charities play in our communities, often because of the profits made from gaming. That work will continue, and we hope the Legislature considers ways to offset a potential reduction in play of revamped games that fit the law.
Seven years ago, Sen. Bakk brought together a wide array of disparate interests to make an historic bill become law. That bill, which ultimately legalized and authorized electronic pull tabs, contained many assurances to organizations like CAGE that this was not an expansion of gambling by allowing slot machines in bars, that it was merely an electronic form of gambling that every bar patron in Minnesota was already familiar with via paper pull tabs.
We are asking the Legislature to honor its 2012 commitment to CAGE and others that prevents e-pull tabs from becoming slot machines. Sen. Bakk was true to his word then and remains true to it today. Likewise, that is all Sen. Bakk is asking from his colleagues: to honor their previous commitment.
Jack Meeks of Minneapolis is chairman of the nonprofit group Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, or CAGE. Jake Grassel of Chaska, Minnesota, is executive director of CAGE.