Tribes: Class II
slots under siege

Sep 26, 2006 4:35 AM

At a public hearing last week in Washington D.C., tribal leaders once again spoke out about the National Indian Gaming Commission’s proposed changes to the classification of video bingo machines.

The games have received ongoing criticism from federal regulators because of their similarity to slot machines. Like slots, video bingo machines operate by hitting a button to spin the reels, but involve a minimum of two gamblers playing over a network. (Slot machines involve one gambler playing against the machine itself.)

The machines fall under the Class II category, making them available to gaming tribes without state compacts. (Currently, Class II games are paper or electronic games of chance that must be based on bingo or pull-tabs. Class III games include slot machines, roulette, pari-mutuel betting and card games like blackjack and poker.)

The NIGC’s proposed rules require a gambler to press a machine’s buttons more than once, slow down the play of the game, and require that 50 percent of the machine’s screen clearly label the machine as bingo.

"The games that would be permitted under the proposed regulations would be extraordinarily expensive to produce and have little commercial viability," Charlie Lombardo, vice president of gaming operations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, was quoted as saying.

The NIGC estimates that some 50,000 video bingo and similar electronic machines are being operated in tribal casinos nationwide — they account for 20 percent of all tribal gaming revenue. Many tribes rely on the machines to supplement their slots, or because they can’t get a state compact to operate slot machines.

Marjorie Mejia, chairwoman of Northern California’s Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, testified at the hearing, saying the new rules would spell economic devastation for her tribe. The band’s sole source of revenue comes from video bingo machines. "It’s really termination for my people," Mejia said.

NIGC Chairman Phil Hogen stressed the need to clarify the classification once and for all, implying that if the commission didn’t distinguish the difference between video bingo and slot machines, states could demand compacts for bingo.

Yet, it seems the NIGC is doing it’s best to eliminate Class II gaming altogether, and machine manufacturers are heeding the warning signals. At last month’s trade show in Oklahoma, at least 90 percent of the machines on display were Class III gambling machines, according to an estimate by Brian Foster, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

Although both tribes and machine manufacturers have successfully sued in federal courts to keep their games running under Class II status, the NIGC’s new rules could undo it all.

Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga — one of California’s most successful gaming tribes””also testified at the commission hearing. He essentially reprimanded the commission for not leaving any option for tribes that could not get state compacts. "Why does the commission feel the need to destroy an entire class of gaming?" he asked.

Despite overwhelming tribal opposition, the NIGC plans to implement the new rules by the end of the year. Public testimony is being heard through Sept. 30.

"GLITCHES" PAY

In two separate incidences recently, gamblers were elated to find that they had won jackpots, only to be told later that machine glitches were to blame, and their winnings were invalid.

At the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, Freddy Howard won nearly $260,000 in a "Swipe and Win’’ kiosk on Aug. 29. He was congratulated by casino employees, then was told by casino officials that the computer had made a mistake, the Miami Herald reported. After an investigation, officials agreed to pay Howard the full amount of his winnings.

And at the Table Mountain Casino in Friant, California, Sornpaserd Unkeowannulack played a nickel slot machine and hit a $737,203 jackpot.

Table Mountain CEO John Mayewski told The Fresno Bee, "We knew right away there was a malfunction, because the maximum payout for that machine was only $2,500, and the progressive jackpot for that group of linked machines was only $10,000, or a motorcycle."

Casino officials have offered to pay Unkeowannulack $10,000 as a "consideration and appreciation" for his patronage, the paper said.