The gambling enterprise has been expanding in North Dakota since lawmakers legalized electronic pull tabs in 2017.
You won’t find the term gambling in the state century code. It falls under the guise of “charitable gaming.” Lawmakers in support say it will help fund charities in the state and it’s “what the people want”. Tribal leaders, whose nations have relied heavily on the industry since the 1990s, say it’s quickly chipping away at income and jobs on the reservation.
“It just seems like there’s all these little hits to our gaming compacts and the exclusivity. You know, the reason gaming compacts with put in place,” explained Turtle Mountain Chairman Jamie Azure.
“It just seems like every two years there are eight or more little bills that come through.”
Casinos were created to be economic drivers and supply jobs for tribal nations, left with small, desolate land bases.
But the business of gambling takes place less and less in brick and mortar buildings.
“We had 450 jobs. Now, we’re going to be down to 150 jobs,” added MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox.
The beginning of the economic trouble, according to Chairmans Azure and Fox, came with the legalization of E-tabs four years back, a system that no longer requires patrons to drive to a reservation.
And when both Tribes’ casinos shut down to mitigate the pandemic, things got worse.
“After a certain point, it just turned into the new normal,” Azure shared.
Although the Sky Dancer Casino is now reopened, he says people are still going elsewhere.
“We are so regulated, internally, externally, federally and state. Part of the issue with the E-tab machines was that there was no regulation, absolutely none,” Azure said.
“I’ve had several conversations with the Tribes,” said Bismarck lawmaker Jason Dockter.
“They’re looking to see if they can share in the profits, one, or limit E-pull tab machines that we have. Currently, there are around 3,400 E-tab machines.”
The Republican representative has proposed a bill, House Bill 1212, that among other things, would start regulating an explosive industry.
“Giving more funding to the AG so they can hire more regulators,” he explained.
“I had to apologize to Mr. Dockter when I said, ‘That’s almost like putting a bandaid over a bullet wound at this point,'” Azure said.
“But it can be effective. Maybe it’s two years late, but I believe that’s a good start.”
Dockter says charitable gaming was worth almost $1.8 billion in the last two years.
“To have what we feel is almost a competitor come in through the state with almost zero regulations, you can see how disrespectful that a lot of tribes could take that,” Azure added.
The Chairman is a big part of the drafting of Senate Bills 2314 and 2315. He testified in support Tuesday.
In a very small nutshell, his two goals are to put more regulation on E-tabs, sports betting and other new things the state is introducing, and to open up the possibility of the Tribe being able to expand gaming enterprises outside of Tribal lands.
Chairman Azure says, realistically, he knows E-tabs are not going away. He says the solution to repair the industry for tribal nations goes back to demanding regulation and getting creative in expanding gaming for the Tribes as well.
Chairman Azure says, up until the last couple of years, the Sky Dancer Casino has been the No. 1 economic driver for the Tribe, but he doesn’t expect that to last and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa is preparing.
The first big project is turning the Sky Dancer Casino into a resort. Azure says they’ve also created an online lending program, BlueChip Financial.
“We went into an aggressive, aggressive plan to buy out any of the existing partners from the past. That whole plan came together… it was planned for five years, we did it in 18 months,” he elaborated.
Chairman Azure says much of the Tribe’s general fund, though, is still fed by gaming revenue. He says the expansion into other industries is helpful, but may not be enough.