Minnesota's dismal e-pulltab sales kick off political blame game

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2013 - 10:46 PM

Critics of Minnesota’s use of gambling industry numbers as a basis for revenue projections want a hearing by Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Sean Nienow
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Sen. Sean Nienow

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Electronic pulltabs were supposed to help Minnesota pay off its share of the new Vikings stadium over 30 years. But at the rate the games are selling, it’s going to take closer to three centuries than three decades.

Outraged critics are asking why the state relied on numbers provided by the gambling industry when it drew up its rosy pulltab revenue estimates. The games were supposed to pour $35 million a year into the stadium fund. Instead, the estimates for the first year are closer to $1.7 million.

“That is an astonishing gap that cannot and must not be summarily dismissed,” said state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, who wrote the Senate Finance Committee this week requesting an oversight hearing when the Legislature returns to work next week. “The Dayton administration provided these estimates and testified before [the finance] committee last year that the were solid estimates which could be trusted.”

The games, which are played on iPad devices in bars and restaurants, were supposed to cover the state’s $343 million share of a new Vikings stadium. The Star Tribune reported Sunday that those ambitious early estimates were provided to the Minnesota Gambling Control Board by gambling businesses with an interest in promoting those games.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, agreed “there might be some legitimate questions to ask” about the numbers the state used in its pulltab estimates. But not this month, when the Finance Committee members and staffers are tied up working on the budget bill.

“These aren’t congressional committees with 25 staffers. Everyone’s overwhelmed with the budget bills,” said Cohen, who didn’t rule out the possibility of hearings at a later date. “Maybe at some point. But I’d sure want more information before I went off on some kind of a witch hunt … Now, at some point down the road if this continues and it looks like there’s some significant problem, sure we’ll have to have some discussions.”

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he did not know the source of the gaming revenue numbers. But he pointed out that the pulltab legislation was sponsored by Republicans and passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature last year. Both sides, he told reporters this week, acted “in good faith.”

“We’re all in this together,” Dayton said earlier this week. “We’re all responsible for its creation.” He said it is too soon to panic about whether the electronic games will eventually cover the state’s share of the new stadium.

Electronic pulltabs were supported by members of both parties, including the governor, and opposed by both parties. During the frantic rush to pass a stadium bill last session, a number of vocal critics questioned the glowing revenue estimates. At the time, Nienow called the numbers “fairies and fufu dust.”

The final bill was written with safeguards and fallbacks in case the estimates fell short. But few expected the gap between the prediction and reality to be quite so gaping.

The Gambling Control Board has already moved to authorize new electronic bingo games, that allow players to compete statewide for pots as large as $75,000, in an effort to cover some of the missing e-pulltab revenue.

 

Staff writer Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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Sen. Sean Nienow