Listen: TR3574_Gambling with Numbers (Nelson)

MPR’s Tim Nelson reports on questions emerging about the amount of money electronic pull-tabs would raise to help pay for a new Vikings stadium.


2013 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Radio - Investigative category


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SPEAKER: Another point of contention in the stadium debate is the estimate of how much money would be raised by electronic pull-tabs. Taxes on those pull-tab machines, along with electronic bingo, are proposed to finance the $400 million state share of a new nearly billion dollar stadium in downtown Minneapolis. But some of the charities that use pull-tabs in bingo now say a state gambling control board estimate of the amount of money electronic gambling would raise is highly optimistic. Tim Nelson has more.

TIM NELSON: The state of Minnesota is putting down a big bet on gambling to pay for a new home for the Vikings. And there may be nowhere that bet is bigger, proportionately speaking, than tiny Hoffman, Minnesota, population 672. It's about 20 miles west of Alexandria. A state projection of increased sales says the charitable gambling operation at the senior center there will more than triple in size when lawmakers legalize new electronic bingo. That's an often overlooked addition to an electronic pull-tab proposal.

From a little $900 a week bingo among friends, the game in Hoffman is projected to grow into a six-figure cash cow annually. Figures released by the Dayton administration project a 229% growth in sales at the Hoffman Senior Center, the highest figure in the state in percentage terms. Maybe.

DARLENE CHRISTENSEN: That's not even in the cards. Nope. I don't-- our people wouldn't go for that at all.

TIM NELSON: Darlene Christensen is CEO of the Hoffman Senior Citizens Club. It serves meals to about three dozen people a day. It offers a weekly craft activity and a foot clinic. And she's not so sure about the $100,000 in new sales the state thinks electronic bingo might bring.


TIM NELSON: Christensen says they even tried electronic bingo once, and the game's sponsors decided it wasn't worth the effort and dropped it at the senior center. They stick with the old-fashioned game.

DARLENE CHRISTENSEN: Well, we have bingo every Friday night. And I would say at least 80% is senior citizens. Maybe even more than 80%. And I don't think they're interested in pull-tabs.

TIM NELSON: Still, there could be some incentive to go electronic. The state projects the senior center's net gambling income could rise from about $3,500 annually to more than $15,000. The state would get an extra $120 a month or so to pay for a stadium. All told, charitable gambling in Minnesota is expected to rise from about $1 to $2.3 billion annually when the games are up and running.

State revenue commissioner Myron Frans concedes that the numbers may not add up in Hoffman. But he says they're still valid overall. For one thing, the state's projections assume the number of places to gamble will jump by about a third, and the growth will likely be uneven. Big in some places, nonexistent in others.

MYRON FRANS: And I understand that some charities are going to feel like we were way off on them, and some of them we may be. But the goal was to not get into that because we're also trying not to model who might-- who the new ones might be.

TIM NELSON: Frans also says predictions are difficult because there's no real example for Minnesota to follow with a big electronic gambling expansion.

MYRON FRANS: They're reasonable. They're actually conservative in some ways. But they are a projection.

TIM NELSON: Still, the numbers are giving even some bigger operations pause. The Spring Lake Park Lions Club sells pull-tabs at four sites in Spring Lake Park and Blaine. They do about $5.9 million in business a year.

They're the seventh largest charitable gambling operation in the state. The projections for Vikings stadium funding have the lion's sales more than doubling to $11.8 million annually. Shawn Donahue is the Lions gambling manager.

SHAWN DONAHUE: I don't see where it's coming from, especially in this economy. It will increase a little bit. But I don't see it doubling. People, when they go into the bars and restaurants, they only have so much money in their pocket.

TIM NELSON: Donahue likes the idea of electronic pull-tabs and considers himself a fan of the Vikings. But he thinks the two will make for a risky combination.

SHAWN DONAHUE: We're in a gambling industry. And I think they're gambling with the numbers they're proposing, to be honest. Everybody's just guessing.

TIM NELSON: And that may include legislators who are weighing a Vikings stadium. Some already say they're worried taxpayers will be on the hook if those guesses are wrong. Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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