Proposal would allow slot-machine-like devices in Texas bingo halls

A proposal to let bingo halls in Texas use electronic devices similar to slot machines is drawing fire from opponents who say it will expand gambling.

On Wednesday, the Texas Lottery Commission is scheduled to consider letting bingo players use “video confirmation” to show whether pull-tag tickets, which are similar to lottery scratch-off tickets, are winners.

Supporters say this proposal could draw more people to bingo halls, generating more money for Texas charities. Opponents say the machines will look and act much like slot machines, essentially bringing a form of casino-style gambling to Texas.

“This changes the gaming landscape in the state and allows the entrance of Indian gaming like we’ve never seen before,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Dallas-based Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which opposes increased gambling in Texas.

“If you’re going to put slot machines in this state at bingo halls, without a doubt it’s something that should go to the Legislature instead of the Lottery Commission,” he said. “Thieves shouldn’t come in through the back doors or the side doors on public policy.”

Lottery officials say they don’t consider video confirmation an expansion of legalized gambling.

“Video confirmation is the graphic and dynamic representation of the outcome of a pull-tab ticket, but video confirmation has no role in determining the ticket’s outcome,” commission spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said in a written statement.

Cripe said proposed rules would prevent the video machines — which some say could range in size from a laptop to a slot machine — from simulating “rolling or spinning wheels, dice or the play of casino-style games.”

Supporters say the changes could “provide licensed bingo charities the opportunity to utilize new game technology to attract bingo customers and increase sales, thus increasing revenue to various charitable purposes and the state,” she said.

In 2011, bingo sales in Texas reached an all-time high, topping $700 million, and more than $533 million was paid out to players, according to the most recent annual report from the Charitable Bingo Operations Division of the Lottery Commission.

Interest in pull-tab tickets continues to be steady, and sales have increased every year since 2002.

Proposed changes

Currently on pull-tab tickets, players pull up tabs to reveal whether the card they bought was a winner.

The proposal for video confirmation was submitted this year by K&B Sales and the Veterans of Foreign Wars-Department of Texas.

Other proposed changes would allow multiplay pull-tab bingo tickets and allow charities to set up accounts for bingo players that can be used to buy bingo products such as games and pull-tab tickets.

“Under the proposed amendments, all pull-tab tickets must still be constructed using paper materials,” Cripe said. “There are no electronic pull-tab tickets or devices.

Also, “all video confirmation methods must be approved by the commission,” she said. “Lastly, video confirmation must not be the exclusive method by which a pull-tab ticket’s outcome is revealed.”

Some say letting bingo players have their own accounts on “card-minding devices” will cut down on long lines at the cashier. The rule changes would not allow any money that players win to be deposited back into the accounts.

Letting players their own account gives them “full flexibility in his purchasing decisions on what he would like to buy,” Knowles Cornwell, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Four Corners Inc., a Dallas-based holding and investment company, said in a video.

Also, “we think if we could get an additional $3 for every ‘card-minder’ that’s played out there, per session, it would raise approximately $36 million for charities in the state of Texas if these rules are adopted.”

Kohler said the rule changes are a bad idea.

“This would allow instant electronic advanced gambling, no different from slot machines, under the guise of simple changes to bingo,” he said. “They are saying this is a technological aid to play bingo.

“They are sending rabbits out, making false trails.”

A heated issue

Texas lawmakers approved state-regulated bingo in 1981 to raise money for charities. More than $1 billion has been paid to Texas charities through the game, the bingo report showed.

Electronic gaming devices have been an issue for more than a decade in Texas, as lawmakers have proposed allowing them, but the Legislature has rejected them.

The issue heated up again in 2007, when Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson, whose district includes part of Tarrant County, said the Lottery Commission tried to skirt the constitutional prohibition on electronic gaming devices by allowing charitable bingo halls to use video monitors to display winning cards on some form of the game.

“The ‘video confirmation’ [of a winning bingo card] involves the same substantive concept, intent and ultimate outcome as allowing an actual electronic game,” Nelson said in a letter that year to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Abbott had already ruled that neither the Lottery Commission nor the Legislature could authorize pull-tab electronic bingo games without amending the Texas Constitution. That was something Texans would have to approve.

Lottery officials said at the time that the video monitors would only display what was printed on the pull-tab bingo card and that players wouldn’t operate the monitors in the same way gamblers operate Las Vegas-style slot machines.

“This is the exact subject four Legislatures have rejected ... and an attorney general’s opinion says it can’t be done,” Kohler said.

“If the proposed rules are adopted by the Texas Lottery Commission, there is nothing to prevent the operation of the same [machines] in every bingo hall and any horse and car racetrack in our state willing to host such bingo occasions,” says a letter submitted by the Christian Life Commission.

Public comment on the issue came up this year, and the lottery staff is expected to present more at Wednesday’s meeting. Most of the comments already received have been in favor of the amendments, Cripe said.

‘Sometimes you are lucky’

Shannon Wallace of Joshua and other bingo fans in Texas hope luck will come their way.

She enjoys sitting in a bingo hall, playing as many games as she can — both traditional bingo and the pull-tag bingo tickets — to boost her chances of winning.

“The odds are good,” Wallace, 42, said before a recent game at Casino Bingo in Fort Worth.

She said she would try video confirmation of pull-tag tickets.

“I’m willing to try anything,” she said with a laugh. “But I do like the thrill of opening the tabs to see if I win.”

For Heather Allday of Burleson, pull-tag tickets aren’t much of a draw.

It’s just the game of bingo itself, and she tries to play every day.

“I love bingo,” Allday, 33, said with a smile. “Sometimes you are lucky. Sometimes you are not.

“I keep coming back for that chance that I might win the big one,” she said. “Personally, I could care less if there are pull-tabs or not.”

That’s not the case for Holly Taylor of Burleson.

She said she enjoys pull-tabs just as much, if not more, than bingo.

And if the pull-tabs were displayed in an electronic game format, she thinks many bingo players would be happy with that as well.

“If they were on the screen, even more people would buy them,” said Taylor, 43. “I think it would be more exciting.”