Electronic pull tab machines

Electronic pull tab machines sit in the Blarney Stone Pub in downtown Bismarck Wednesday. 

North Dakota’s introduction of electronic pull tabs has been a revenue success. Tax revenues from gambling for the 2017-19 budget cycle are ahead of projections, and electronic pull tabs are getting the credit.

It’s usually a reason to celebrate when revenue tops projections, but there’s a downside in this case.

State Gaming Director Deb McDaniel said when the Legislature approved the electronic pull tabs in 2017, it was expected the devices would draw money away from other forms of gambling. That hasn’t been the case, with only a little attrition being noticed.

Electronic pull tabs became available in August 2018. McDaniel told Forum News Service that there are 1,700 devices being used by 174 organizations at 470 sites in the state. Final figures for the budget cycle aren’t available yet, but the numbers were good for the first 23 months.

During that time, more than $8.9 million in gambling taxes went into the general fund. That’s 25% ahead of legislative forecasts and 35% more than at the same time during the previous biennium.

That’s good news for a state that just recently endured budget cuts and staff reductions. However, it raises the question of whether the state has found another way to entice people to spend money in the pursuit of making more money. There’s no skill in playing pull tabs — you buy them and open them to see if you won anything.

The Tribune editorial board doesn’t oppose legalized gambling. We believe it’s better for the state to control gambling and establish the rules. While the types of gambling are limited across the state, Indian reservations are allowed to operate casinos. They have proven an important revenue source for the tribes.

North Dakota had paper pull tabs before the introduction of the electronic devices, so the type of gambling isn’t new. The devices make it faster, easier and less messy to buy pull tabs. From a revenue standpoint that’s good — more money coming in. For those who can afford to spend only a certain amount, it makes it easier to exceed their limit. Someone addicted to gambling can get hooked on the devices.

Lisa Vig, director of the Gamblers Choice program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, describes electronic pull tabs as a “slot machine-style” game that’s appealing to those with a propensity for gambling problems.

The Tribune doesn’t believe the answer is to pour more money into programs that fight compulsive gambling. Those programs are good, but the problem won’t be solved by offering more ways to gamble and sending some of the revenue to fight addiction. In a sense we are creating a problem we have to solve.

The state needs to be careful when it comes to expanding gambling. While many North Dakotans enjoy gambling and do it responsibly, some limits are necessary. It’s likely there will be a renewed push for sports gambling during the 2021 legislative session. It’s an issue that merits a thorough discussion before the next session.

Gambling has provided a lot of benefits for charitable groups across the state. That’s a big positive. We need to continue to conduct gambling wisely in North Dakota so the benefits easily outweigh the drawbacks.

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