BISMARCK — Tribal casinos in North Dakota are taking a hit.

Since the 2017 state Legislature legalized electronic pull tabs — a casino-esque game where players touch a screen to reveal winnings — tribal nations have been losing money as charities are seeing the benefits.

“It’s no small thing for us,” said Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. “It’s of dire concern, at a minimum.”

Each of the five tribal nations in North Dakota has a casino, which must comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act established by the federal government in 1988.

Tribal casinos have long served as a destination for tourists and those in nearby towns, said Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. But with electronic pull tabs providing consumers with a piece of the experience, there’s a “casino-creep” happening in the state.

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Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, sits July 18 outside the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Meagan Deanne / The Forum
Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, sits July 18 outside the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Meagan Deanne / The Forum

Casinos “are very delicate entities crucial to the survival of our tribes,” he said. “Without them, things would be really tough — tougher than they are now.”

Since being legalized, electronic pull-tabs, or e-tabs, popped up in almost every county across the state at VFWs, Eagles and Moose Clubs, and even bars, restaurants and Cenex stations, according to Deb McDaniel, gaming director under the Office of Attorney General.

At a judiciary committee hearing last year, McDaniel said as of Oct. 31 there were 2,168 e-tab devices at 542 sites conducted by 190 charitable gaming organizations in 216 cities and all but three counties in the state.

McDaniel asked for more full-time employees in her department, as she said the gaming division is under “tremendous strain” to regulate e-tabs and prevent abuse such as money laundering.

She said gaming proceeds have jumped since e-tabs came about in August 2018. From 2015 to 2017, licensed gaming brought in $569 million, of which $43.7 million went to charity and $6.8 million went to the state general fund. From 2017 to 2019, they brought in $852 million, raising over $51 million for charity and $11 million for the state’s general fund. For the 2019-2021 biennium, she predicted $1 billion in gross proceeds.

Andy Maragos, a former North Dakota representative for Minot, helped sponsor the 2017 bill that legalized e-tabs. Maragos said expanding charitable gaming in the state was always a goal of his because of all the good it does for charities. The e-tab legislation came about, he said, because “charitable gaming was getting stagnant and needed a shot in the arm.”

“To me, it’s just a good way to raise money for charity,” he said.

Maragos said he didn’t intend for tribal casinos to feel an impact, noting that those establishments have a wide range of gaming, as well as hotels and convention centers. “They have a distinctive advantage of being able to give you a complete entertainment package,” he said.

Collette Brown, gaming commission executive director for the Spirit Lake Tribe, said the Spirit Lake Casino Resort, seven miles south of Devils Lake, saw a 42% decrease on its bottom line in one year.

“Myself, my tribe, are gravely concerned with the electronic pull tab systems, e-tabs, in the state of North Dakota,” she said during the Strengthening Government to Government Relations Conference in Bismarck in January.

The five tribal casinos combined have an employee payroll of about $80 million a year, she said, and that money goes directly into surrounding markets.

“It’s not just chump change that the Indians have,” Chairman Fox said. “It makes a huge difference, not just to us, but to the economy of the state as well.”

Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, speaks about the effects of electronic pull tab machines during the Strengthening Government to Government Conference on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Bismarck. Natasha Rausch / Forum
Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, speaks about the effects of electronic pull tab machines during the Strengthening Government to Government Conference on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Bismarck. Natasha Rausch / Forum

Fox said the casino helps cover tribal expenditures and provide jobs. Without it, those jobs would disappear, along with the tax revenue, he said.

“We have to, as tribal nations, figure out what are we going to do,” Fox said. “Our very livelihood, how we take care of our people, our jobs, are at a great threat.”