Politics & Government

Plan to bring more technology to bingo on table in Texas

Some say it’s time to bring Texas’ bingo halls into the 21st century.

That’s why bingo advocates are asking state officials to allow an upgrade to card minders, small devices that “mind” electronic versions of the paper cards other bingo customers are playing.

Under the plan, new software would be added to existing card minders to let Texans buy more games electronically while playing bingo.

“We think it’s very important,” said Stephen Fenoglio, an Austin-based attorney for Texas charities that benefit from bingo. “It digitizes everything.

“That makes is so much more simple,” he said. “This will make it easier for the player, the regulator and the charity conducting bingo.”

This proposal was slowed down this year because it came up 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 Texas Lottery 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.

But officials have scheduled a public hearing Monday in Austin for the card-minding system proposal, which is expected to include a demonstration of the technology.

A possible vote by the Lottery Commission could come as soon as Aug. 12.

Critics of efforts to expand gambling in Texas have met with bingo officials to better understand the proposal and make sure it’s not a back-door way of allowing video confirmation in Texas.

“We have got a concern with the increasing functionality of card minding devices,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Dallas-based Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which opposes increased gambling.

How they work

Bingo, the oldest form of gambling in Texas, is big business.

Lawmakers approved state-regulated bingo in 1981 to raise money for Texas charities, which have received more than $1 billion through the game, reports show.

Through the years, changes or additions to the game have been made, such as 1994, when pull-tab tickets were allowed, and 1996, when card-minding devices were approved for sale.

Now, Fenoglio and others are asking the commission to allow a rule change to let charities set up accounts for bingo players that could be used to buy bingo products such as games.

Under the change, 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 machine — a handheld device that can be about the size of an iPad — with the amount they paid installed on it.

Card minders are already in use, displaying bingo cards and electronically playing the numbers as they are called out in bingo halls. Supporters say these devices help bingo players who want to play multiple games at the same time.

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 to buy more bingo games.

Some say letting bingo players have their own accounts on the card minders would cut down on long lines at the cashier. The rule change would not allow any money that players win to be deposited back into the accounts.

Electronic bingo card minders were allowed by the Legislature in the 1990s and have been used by licensed charitable groups for bingo since then, according to the Texas Lottery Commission.

Digital bingo

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

“It’s so much simple and easier to audit,” he said. “The sale is recorded upfront and there’s a time stamp.

“It will make it easier for the player, the regulator and the charity conducting bingo.”

Approval of the proposal by commissioners would require a software change in the card minders now in bingo halls.

Manufacturers would have to produce a system that has been tested. And that system would be subject to approval from commissioners, Fenoglio said.

The soonest the new technology could be in Texas bingo halls, even with approval Aug. 12, would be six months, he said.

Kohler said he and other opponents of expanding gambling have followed attempts to increase the functionality of card minders devices since the concept was introduced in Texas.

They are hoping to get some answers before the commissioners vote on the issue.

“We are not new to this particular issue,” he said. “We still have concerns.”