Charity Gaming Clashes With Tribes Over Internet, Sports Gambling Rights In North Dakota – InForum

BISMARCK — North Dakota is negotiating new agreements for gaming operations from the state’s five tribes, and the stakes are high between the tribes and charities that share many of the same goals but compete for gaming revenue.

The state’s tribes, which operate under gaming compacts signed in 1992 that expire at the end of the year, are seeking exclusive rights to internet gambling and sports betting from the state in negotiations for their new compacts — which would create a monopoly market worth millions of dollars.

Casinos are typically the largest employers on the reservations, providing important revenue streams that meet basic human needs, including youth programs and services for the elderly.

But tribal officials and members complain that the advent of electronic pull tabs for charity games is siphoning off significant revenue that supports the tribes. The e-tabs, played on machines that mimic Las Vegas-style games, grossed nearly $1.75 billion in fiscal 2022, according to state figures.

“We’re not able to compete with the E-Tab machines,” said Rhonda Counts, who works at Sky Dancer Casino in Belcourt, operated by Chippewa’s Turtle Mountain Band, on Friday, October 21 , at a public hearing where she accepted comments on the game, the Draft Tribal Gaming Compacts.

Employment at Sky Dancer Casino once averaged 450 people, but since gambling charities were authorized to offer electronic pull tabs in 2017, casino activity has dropped and the casino now employs between 250 and 300.

Gaming tables were cut in half, from eight to four, and the casino’s buffet and poker room were closed, Counts said.

“We don’t win on e-tabs,” she said. “It’s our primary source of employment on our reservation.”

The counts’ comments about the damaging effects of the e-tab competition were echoed by other tribal officials – but countered by leaders of veterans’ organizations and other charities that use gaming proceeds to support community programs.

Matt Jameson, commander of a VFW post in Bismarck, said charitable gambling, which was legalized in North Dakota after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1976, was vital to supporting veterans’ groups.

“Without veteran organizations, there would be no charitable games here in North Dakota,” he said. Giving tribes exclusive rights to internet gambling and sports betting would deal a devastating blow to charity gaming, he said.

“This will single-handedly destroy all veteran organizations,” Jameson said. “Not just veteran organizations, all fraternities.”

Both charitable and Indian gambling advocates agree that the convenience of internet betting means it holds the future of the gambling industry, underscoring just how much at stake is how this revenue pie is shared across the state.

Mike Motschenbacher, executive director of the North Dakota Gaming Alliance, which represents charitable gaming interests, said it would be unfair to give tribes all internet gaming rights in the state.

“Why would the governor’s office want to create a monopoly?” he asked. “There are laws against monopolies,” adding that if tribes get exclusive rights to internet gambling in the state, it “absolutely decimates the charitable gambling industry.”

Gov. Doug Burgum, who chaired Friday’s public hearing, has sole authority to negotiate gaming contracts with the tribes.

Charity games this year will bring in an estimated $43 million in state tax revenue, Motschenbacher said. “That number will be greatly reduced.”

Tribal gambling casinos can offer roulette wheels, enhanced table games and slot machines, games unavailable to charitable gaming operations, he said, arguing that tribes could increase revenue by marketing their games more aggressively.

“They have the advantages,” said Motschenbacher. “They have nicer, huge casinos.”

However, Indian gaming officials countered that the convenience and widespread availability of the e-tabs they are unable to offer has severely curtailed the revenue that creates jobs and essential services.

Cynthia Monteau, executive director of the United Tribes Gaming Association, said the unemployment rate on North Dakota’s reservations rose to 60% to 70% before casinos came in after the 1992 compacts that opened up the industry.

“It created jobs,” she said, and created wealth that extended beyond the reservation’s borders through non-tribal jobs and business activity. “A lot of companies in Bismarck serve the Prairie Knights Casino, for example, and have long-standing relationships.”

The Prairie Knights Casino is located south of Mandan on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Gross revenue from e-tabs since 2018 has surpassed $4 billion, Monteau said. “So it’s pretty hard to say that the scales have tipped in favor of the tribes. That’s pretty hard to say.”

Monteau added, “We came to the table and thought about how we could present a win-win situation. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Burgum agreed that e-tabs represent significant competition to Indian casinos. In a pause during testimony, he said record e-tab revenue coincided with a slump in tribal gaming revenue.

“I don’t think the data would support your claim that the tribes have an advantage,” Burgum said after testimony from charity gambling advocates. “If you’re going to make statements, I think you should back them up with data.”

Spirit Lake Nation chairman Doug Yankton noted that casinos provide much-needed jobs and support vital programs, and said the tribes are similar to charities in their use of gaming revenue.

“So we’re not much different,” he said. He later added, “We’re not here to take anything away from anyone.”

Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, said he remembered buses coming to North Dakota from Minnesota after charitable gambling was legalized in 1976, but that changed in a “pendulum swing” after the establishment of reservation casinos in the early 1990s years.

“I really dislike that all of this is side against side,” he said, adding that he wishes he had a solution to avoid conflict. Dever said he voted against legislature-approved e-tabs and was concerned that expanding gambling will increase gambling addiction.

“I know there’s a growing addiction problem because of this,” he said. “Addiction is a real problem.”

Burgum also raised concerns about gambling addiction. Under the new pacts, the state requires each tribe to contribute $25,000 to pay for gambling treatment.

Written testimony on the draft Tribal Gaming Compacts will be received by October 31 and may be emailed to Burgum at [email protected], mailed to 600 E. Boulevard Ave, Bismarck, ND, 58505, or sent to the Reception will be given to the Governor’s Office.


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