Jerry Kopel

Are video slot machines still legal in bingo halls? The biggest money maker in the annual quarter of a billion dollar industry (that's gross, not net) met a bump on the road to riches during the 1999 Senate State Affairs hearings on HB 1187.

The bill re-enacted the Bingo and Raffles law, and Gov. Bill Owens let it become law without his signature. He really had no choice. If no bill passed, the bingo statute would have completed a windup period and died, leaving only the constitution's "self-enacting" language, which is totally useless for any real possibility of regulation. Colorado would have had "bingo without borders."

Up until now, the Department of State had considered the video slot machines as a legal form of pull tabs, which game is defined in the bingo statutes. There are tickets preprinted with markings that reveal winners when the ticket is broken or torn apart. In the distant past, the player pulled the ticket out of a jar. But for some time, the bingo industry has been using electronic machines that closely resemble casino slots.

It works this way. You buy a pull tab card that costs $5 or $20. You break open the card which contains bar codes or numbers and insert it into the electronic machines. Then you either pull the handle or push the button.

You get twenty "hits", and after each hit, the video reels of the machine are activated and you get three plums, three oranges, or something similar. At the end of the twenty hits, a paper comes out showing your winnings, if any. You take that to the cashier or person selling the pull tabs and get your money.

There is also a potential for corruption. Each batch of pull tabs contains a certain number of winners. When cashed in, the person selling or paying the winners knows how many major winners have been paid from a particular pull tab batch. If there are few winners or lots of winners left in a batch, the person selling or cashing in winning tickets can steer a friend to a pull tab from a "good" batch.

The industry uses "bingo" as a front for pull tabs. The State Auditor's report in November, 1996 claims "pull tabs make up about two-thirds of gross receipts." The percentage is even higher now.

Rachel Volberg's 1997 report on compulsive gamblers in Colorado revealed such gamblers are five times more likely than social gamblers to gamble on bingo and pull tabs, are significantly more likely to be women then men, and significantly more likely to be of African-American or Hispanic heritage.

The new law on pull tab slot machines doesn't take effect until Sept.1. Officially illegal under the new law is "a pull tab game that is stored, electronically or otherwise, within a device and designed to be played on such device."

The machine can be used if it is "a device that merely reads or validates a pull tab inserted by a player, if the pull tab ticket itself displays the winning or nonwinning status so that use of the device is not required". That means each pull tab is going to have to clearly set out whether it is a winner or a loser, which is usually not presently known when it is a bar code insertion for a video slot machine.

If a player can get more "entertainment" out of slipping the pull tab into the video slot machine, instead of just checking off the numbers, what do you think is going to happen? And what does "read or validate" mean? A rolling video screen turning up three plums or three cherries?

Also, and this is important, the device cannot be used in the manner that would qualify it as a casino slot machine under Article 18 of the state constitution. Our new secretary of state replacing the deceased Vikki Buckley will have the task of ensuring the video slots don't infringe on the casino industry.

Bingo lobbyists were not happy with having the video slot machines named for what they were as the bill left the Senate committee, but Chairman Mary Ann Tebedo, R-Colorado Springs, was adamant in placing some limitations on what had become runaway casinos in bingo halls.

The secretary of state will have a new, nine member advisory board with eight coming from the industry, and all members appointed by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate. No other regulatory board in the executive branch is appointed by the legislative leadership. This has to be a slap in the face of Gov. Owens.

This board is required to "conduct a continuous study of charitable gaming, recommend statutory changes to the legislature, prepare an annual report regarding findings and recommendations" and offer various sorts of advice to the secretary of state.

That's a lot to do for an advisory board with no director to prepare an agenda, no phone number people can call to obtain or provide information, and no separate post office box for mail. The board's total budget is $4,900, a sum designed to pay for attendance at board meetings. Without funds to do its work, the board is a FARCE perpetrated on the public by the legislature.

The next Sunset repeal date for bingo is 2008, which means, thanks to term limits, no one presently in the legislature will be there for the next round of debate on the issues, unless they are in the corridors as bingo industry lobbyists.

Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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