Tribes rally against
Class 2 overhaul

Dec 19, 2006 6:15 AM

American Indian tribes are awaiting a decision on possible changes to video bingo machines that may lead to million-dollar losses in casino revenues.

The proposed National Indian Gaming Commission changes, published in May, called for slowing down play, requiring more players in each game and clearly labeling machines to help distinguish video bingo from slots.

In effect, to make video bingo seem more like bingo.

The changes have been loudly opposed by many tribes.

"We are listening to their comments and we are taking it into consideration," said Shawn Pensoneau, commission spokesman. "What we published in May was a draft. I’m somewhat certain that there will be changes in that document."

In Whatcom County, the changes would directly affect the Nooksack Indian Tribe, which is building a new casino with 500 video bingo machines. The tribe’s Nooksack River Casino in Deming operates 28 bingo machines.

Lummi Nation’s Silver Reef Casino does not carry video bingo.

The public comment period on the proposed changes ends Friday. The deadline was extended in the beginning of December to allow for comment on a new economic impact study.

Clear definitions

The gaming commission, a regulatory agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, wants to draw a clear line between video bingo and slot machines so tribes and customers won’t be confused.

Tribes need an agreement with the state to operate slot machines but not to run video bingo. Gaming agreements limit the number of slot machines a tribe can have, so some have turned to video bingo to supplement their incomes.

In Washington state, 16 tribes operate 1,721 video bingo machines.

With slots, gamblers play against the house. In video bingo, gamblers play against each other through a network. The concern is that video bingo now looks and sounds too much like slot machines.

"The tribes and the industry would be served better if they are clear on the definition and classification," Pensoneau said.

Economic impact

The commission recently published a report studying the economic impact of making the proposed changes.

"We don’t want to stifle a helpful industry and a positive industry," Pensoneau said.

Alan Meister of Analysis Group Inc. determined that the changes would have a "significant negative impact" on gaming revenues and tribes because the changes make video bingo more cumbersome, slow to play and less appealing to gamblers.

Slower playing time would also reduce the number of games that can be played, reducing the income generated from the games.