Politics & Government

August 4, 2014

Is Texas ready to upgrade bingo technology?

A proposal would let bingo players pay for games electronically, rather than waiting for workers to bring them more games.

Bingo halls could soon be allowed to pick up the pace of play for their games — a move that could make it easier for people to spend more, which in turn would generate more revenue for charities statewide.

The proposal to allow so-called card minders moved closer to reality Monday.

Advocates asked state bingo officials during a public hearing to allow an upgrade of card minders, small devices that “mind” electronic versions of paper bingo cards, which would let games be sold at a faster rate.

Supporters say the change is needed to bring Texas bingo into the 21st century; opponents fear that it will lead the state in the wrong direction.

“We believe charities miss out on sales because of the cumbersome process,” said Stephen Fenoglio, an Austin-based attorney for Texas charities. “It digitizes the transaction.”

Under the proposal, new software would be added to existing card minders to let Texans buy games electronically when playing bingo, rather than going to the cash register each time they want more games.

Critics say they believe that this proposal could expand gambling in the state, so it should be decided by an authority higher than the Texas Lottery Commission, which oversees charitable bingo.

“You can’t go down this path at all,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Austin-based Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which opposes increased gambling. “There is clear legislative history that shows this is [an issue] for the Texas Legislature, not the Texas Lottery Commission.”

The commission may consider the proposal at a meeting Aug. 12 in Austin.

Changing the game

The proposal was slowed down this year because it came up at the same time as a controversial plan to let bingo halls use electronic devices similar to slot machines that opponents feared would expand gambling.

The commission delayed weighing in on either proposal after last-minute concern erupted about letting bingo players use “video confirmation” to show whether paper pull-tab tickets, which are similar to lottery scratch-off tickets, are winners. No plans have been made public to revive the video confirmation proposal.

The proposed changes were submitted earlier this year by K&B Sales and the Veterans of Foreign Wars-Department of Texas.

The current card minding proposal would let charities set up accounts for bingo players that could be used to buy bingo products such as games.

Bingo players would still go to a cashier at the bingo hall and pay a certain amount. In turn, they would receive a card minder, a handheld device already in use at many bingo halls, with the amount they paid installed on it.

The requested change would let bingo players buy more cards — up to the amount they prepaid — through the card minders instead of going to the cashier every time they want more bingo games.

Any winnings from the electronic games would be paid out in cash, just as any other winning game is paid out now.

“This would generate increased revenues,” said Philip Sanderson, a representative of Texas Charities Advocates.

Sanderson estimates that sales at bingo halls that use card minders could increase from 3 to 10 percent if the proposal is approved.

Opposing view

Kohler said increasing the functionality of the card minders could be taking a step in the direction of video confirmation.

So he asked that the proposal, if it moves forward, include language specifically stating that it does not include options for video confirmation. And he asked that the commission seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office determining whether the agency has authority to make this type of rule change.

“If you are right and I’m wrong,” then the issue is settled, Kohler said. “That’s the best way to go about this.”

But Kimberly L. Kiplin, an Austin attorney speaking on behalf of K&B Sales and the VFW, said none of what Kohler is seeking is necessary.

The rule change, she said, “doesn’t expand gaming in Texas” or go beyond the commission’s authority.

Past legislative proposals that have failed had one big difference from what is being proposed now. The past proposals let winnings go back onto the machine. Any winnings from the card minder machines, even with the rules change, would continue to be paid out in cash, she said.

“This rule merely allows [the creation] … of a customer account,” she said.

Coming up

If commissioners decide to move forward with the proposal, software would have to be changed in all the card minders in bingo halls statewide.

Manufacturers would have to produce a system that has been tested, and it would be subject to the commission’s approval, Fenoglio said.

The soonest the new technology could be in Texas bingo halls, even with approval next week, would be six months, he said.

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