After a year that torpedoed Minnesota’s hospitality industry and nonprofit sector, some are concerned that changes proposed by the state legislature could make things even harder.
Under an amendment added to the House’s Commerce omnibus bill, e-pull tab games which simulate casino gaming with features like “ delayed reveals, cascading or tumbling reveals, bonus games, bonus wheels, free play, free spins” would be outlawed.
Building off of the financial success of traditional pull tab gaming, e-pull tabs were a key source of funding for U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. At first they attracted scant interest, falling far below projections and forcing state officials to dip into other pots of money.
Since then, the industry has boomed, producing more than $1.3 billion in revenue, according to a recent state report. About $29 million of that goes to local bars and restaurants through rent payments, and about $33 million goes to charity. To help stimulate interest, the makers of e-pull tab and electronic bingo games have added a variety of interactive features. However, the intent of the 2012 law was that traditional slot machine gaming remain reserved for tribal casinos.
A bipartisan group of legislators including Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, and Sens. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, and Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, now say they believe the state needs to rein in the games because they have crossed a line and now more resemble casino gaming.
As then-leader of the Senate DFL Caucus, Bakk helped author the deal that made e-pull tabs possible. In a statement, he emphasized that while it’s nice to see that bars, restaurants and nonprofits have benefited, the intent was only to fund the stadium.
Worse, Bakk fears that the state could potentially be sued by the tribes and forced to give up the e-pull tabs altogether. By contrast, the reforms he proposes would provide time for game manufacturers to modify their offerings, preserving at least some of the fun and revenue.
“I think the provisions in the bill make sense,” said Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield. “There’s a lot of time before changes to into effect to allow gaming companies to change what they offer.”
Critics within the hospitality industry and broader business community are unconvinced. Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson noted that e-pull tabs have provided valuable revenue for local nonprofits and even the Chamber itself.
“This allows people to partake in that entertainment gambling without having to travel far away,” he said. “A good chunk of those dollars then stay right here in Faribault at the business and support nonprofits in town.”
Johnson said that he’s heard from a number of local businesses who would prefer to see the e-pull tabs stay as they are, particularly with how difficult things have been for hospitality businesses. Rice County’s hospitality sector is among the largest in southeast Minnesota.
County Commissioner Galen Malecha, who manages Northfield’s Fraternal Order of Eagles Club, is also not a fan of restricting e-pull tabs. He said the revenue plays a key role in keeping the lights on at the club, though most of it goes to support local youth programs.
Malecha expressed skepticism that e-pull tabs are significantly impacting tribal casinos. In addition to wanting to avoid a lengthy trip, he said that many people may prefer e-pull tabs because they don’t want the flashy atmosphere of a casino.
“I think there’s enough business to go around for the casinos, the clubs, the bars and the restaurants to be able to continue with e-tabs the way they are,” he said.
Mary Almendinger of Faribault’s Our Place on 3rd fears that the change would take away a large portion of her business. Almendinger has six e-pull tab machines in her restaurant and says that most days, all of them are in use.
“This would take away a large part of our business,” she said. “Things would go back to where they were before, when (e-pull tabs) did not do well.”
Almendinger has encouraged her customers to reach out to their legislators to let them know how they feel about e-pull tabs. If the state moves to restrict their e-pull tabs, she said the losses to businesses like hers and also local nonprofits would be huge.
Pam Sartor at Winjum’s Shady Acres west of Faribault worries that restrictions on e-pull tabs will cut significantly into her business. Sartor said that many of her customers like to take a spin or two on the e-pull tab games before having their meal.
“It gives them something to do when they’re waiting for their food,” she said. “This way, they can do a little bit of gambling without having to go to a specific location.”