Electronic pulltabs' popularity soars in North Dakota

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakotans poured more than $410.5 million into electronic pulltabs in the first nine months after launch, creating a boom for charities and the state treasury but stirring concern about problem gambling and the impact on American Indian casinos.

The Las Vegas-style games approved by legislators in 2017, and launched last summer, brought in about as much revenue as neighboring Minnesota — with more than seven times as many people — did with its more sedate iPad version of the game.

Charitable Gaming Association head Janelle Mitzel estimated the e-pulltabs will increase money going to charities by 50 percent, to $69 million, in the state's current two-year budget cycle. That money funds everything from youth sports to programs for the needy.

"These are doing fantastic," Mitzel said of the machines. "They have been wonderful for charities."

Jon Jorgensen, gaming manager for ShareHouse, a Fargo-based substance abuse treatment center, estimated his operation would pocket about $750,000 in gambling proceeds this year, up about 50 percent from a typical year.

"Charitable gaming helps all North Dakota one way or another," Jorgensen said.

They've boosted the state treasury, too. Although other games including blackjack and bingo raise money for North Dakota charities, the explosion of e-pulltabs has corresponded with a 36% jump in state gambling tax revenue, to $9.1 million, from the previous two-year budget cycle.

The games' popularity was on display recently at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Mandan, where a handful of mostly older players who once preferred paper pulltabs were drawn to a brightly lit row of machines while other club members drank beer or ate dinner specials nearby.

Carol Johnson, 59, a regular player since the games were introduced last summer, was feeding $20 bills into a machine that had been lucky in the past.

"It's addictive," Johnson said. She said she didn't know if she'd won more money or lost it on e-pulltabs, but she also said she didn't mind losing since charities benefit from her play.

Nearby, Dave Bauer, 66, a retired railroad worker from Huff, cursed a machine he was playing as his losses mounted. Like Johnson, he called the machines "addictive."

"They really need to get these ... out of here — get rid of them," he said. He talked of winning as much as $1,500 in a sitting — but losing more often than not.

"I wake up in the mornings sometimes saying 'What'd I do, what'd I do,'" he said. "Everybody does."

The machines' success is stirring concern that they may add to the number of people who have problems with gambling.

The state contracts with Lutheran Social Services to offer gambling therapy and outreach. Lisa Vig, a counselor for the agency's treatment program called Gambler's Choice, said about a dozen people sought help in January and February for e-pulltab issues, which at the time was 60 percent of the program's clients.

At least some of North Dakota's five American Indian reservations are feeling the effect of electronic pulltabs.

Spirit Lake Indian Reservation's operation in northeastern North Dakota has seen revenue drop by some 40 percent, said Collette Brown, the executive director of the tribe's gaming commission. Brown declined to provide exact figures, and tribes aren't required to publicly disclose them.

"It's a big hit for us. We're feeling it," Brown said of the e-pulltab machines, many within just a few miles of the reservation's borders. "There is no reason to go to the casino now."

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has also seen a drop in gambling activity, tribal Chairman Mike Faith said, though he couldn't immediately say how much. Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox said it's too early to tell how his tribes' casino has been affected.

"It's having a negative impact and if they state continues to allow it, it will have an even bigger impact in the future," Faith said.

Revenue from tribal casinos funds programs that include everything from food distribution to fire and ambulance services on reservations.

Electronic pulltabs launched in August 2018, and now nearly 2,000 are scattered around the state in about 80 percent of cities and towns, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. The data through July 31 was shared by a state lawmaker after the attorney general's office declined an open records request, instead referring a reporter to the office's website, which had less detailed data and only through March.

Deb McDaniel, the gaming director for the attorney general's office, declined an interview request to discuss the games.

Players at the Eagles club in Mandan said the e-pulltabs are far more exciting than paper pulltabs.

"A lot of people wouldn't spend more than $20 on the paper pulltabs but they are now putting $20, after $20, after $20 in these machines," Bauer said.

Vig and Republican Sen. Dwight Cook, chairman of the Senate's Finance and Taxation Committee, suggested some of the revenue from e-pulltabs and other charitable gambling should be diverted to help fund problem gambling treatment programs, as the state lottery does.

Mitzel, who heads the state Charitable Gaming Association, said her group supports the idea. But she and Jorgensen, the gaming manager, bristled at those who liken e-pulltabs to slot machines.

Mitzel calls them a "modern method of delivery of pulltabs." Jorgensen says they are "virtual" paper pulltabs.

Cook refuses to call them anything but slot machines.

"You can put lipstick on them all you want — these are slot machines that never should have showed up in the state without a vote of the people," he said.