ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — A House DFL proposal at the state capitol would ban all electronic pull tab games currently in play across the state because they are too similar to slot machines, a move that would cost bars, restaurants and charities that benefit from the revenue tens of millions of dollars.

Eric Lara, general manager of Hoggsbreath sports bar in St. Paul, said having the games is a draw for customers and gives a boost to employees during a difficult year for business amid the pandemic.

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“When someone wins or comes in and just puts down a lot of money—right off the bat the first thing they want to do is take care of the person that’s helping them,” he said.

At issue is the 2012 law authorizing e-pull tabs, which was approved to help fund construction of U.S. Bank Stadium for the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. The law says the games can’t “mimic a video slot machine,” but supporters of the proposal say those played on tablets in bars right now do just that.

“The games being played every day around our state are not compliant with the deal that was struck that stipulated these games could not mimic slot machines,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who authored the changes outlined in a House budget proposal. “This is about the state honoring our agreement [with Minnesota’s tribal nations.]”

The effort tees up another policy debate Republicans and Democrats need to work through in the final days of session. Under the proposal, all existing electronic pull tab and linked bingo games would be prohibited, according to a fiscal note on the bill.

No changes would go into effect until 2022 in an effort for “game developers to comply and for our businesses to emerge from COVID,” Stephenson said in a statement.

But businesses and Republican lawmakers who want to allow the current e-pull tabs to stay in play say bars, restaurants and charities cannot afford to lose the revenue generated by the games. The fiscal analysis estimates local bars offering the games would lose nearly $30 million and workers who authorize the games would lose more than $35 million in wages.

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“This is the No. 1 issue I’m getting emails on because it affects a lot people,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, during a Wednesday news conference. “Our local bars and restaurants have had a really, really rough year and taking away their electronic pull tabs is like kicking them while they’re down.”

For charities, available funds drop by $33 million if the law is updated, according to the fiscal analysis report.

The Little Canada Fire Department benefits from e-pull tab revenue at Hoggsbreath. Volunteers run the department on a pay-per-call basis and it operates as a nonprofit.

Don Smiley, fire chief at Little Canada Fire Department, said they use the funds to pay for equipment, including a fire truck that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money helps offset financial burdens otherwise absorbed by local taxpayers.

“They’ve been a really good source of revenue for us,” Smiley said. “[The] truck didn’t cost the taxpayers of Little Canada a dime.”

The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents the 11 federally recognized tribal nations in the state, in a statement to WCCO said it supports the proposal that would prohibit e-pull tabs that look like slot machines at casinos.

“The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association and its member tribes urge the Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Gambling Control Board to take clarifying actions necessary to ensure electronic pull-tab and bingo games comply with the intent of the 2012 authorizing statute,” a statement from a spokesman reads.

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The proposed language is tucked inside a bill that is part of the two-year budget that Republicans and Democrats need to agree on before session adjourns.

Caroline Cummings