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Idaho House Panel Approves Bill Banning Electronic Pull-Tabs


A bill seeking to ban lucrative electronic pull-tab games in Idaho is on its way to the House floor despite objections from state lottery officials that the betting terminals are not slot machines.

The House State Affairs Committee reluctantly endorsed legislation Thursday to repeal electronic pull-tab machines, known as touch tabs. The machines mimic the classic pull-tab lotto tickets but are paperless and are played almost exclusively in bars and restaurants.

"Let's slow it down, let's draw the line here," said Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, the bill's sponsor.

While the committee agreed to move the bill forward, members did so without a recommendation that the full House pass the bill — signaling that sponsors still have an uphill battle to get it through the body. Furthermore, no committee members debated for or against the bill before casting their votes.

Critics of the games say the machines resemble illegal slot machines. Slot machines were briefly legal in Idaho from 1947 to 1953 before the Idaho Legislature declared slot machines unconstitutional.

"The difference between paper pull-tabs and these touch-tab machines is the difference between caffeine and cocaine," said Jo Krutz with Stop Predatory Gambling told lawmakers.

The Idaho Lottery, which oversees the touch-tabs, alerted lawmakers of the products before they rolled out in 2011, said Director Jeff Anderson.

Supporters argue that the machines attract new and younger gamblers, which helps bolster revenue for Idaho's public schools. In 2011, when the machines were first installed, the Idaho Lottery saw roughly $2.9 million in sales. By 2016, there were roughly 240 electronic pull-tab machines in 140 locations in Idaho and sales had jumped to $31 million. Public schools receive five-eighths of the state's net profits.

However, Idaho's deeply conservative Statehouse has been wary of expanding gaming for decades.

Most recently, lawmakers repealed instant horse racing betting terminals in 2015 after many felt they had been duped into legalizing cleverly disguised slot machines.

Instant horse racing allows bettors to place wagers on prior horse races that are videotaped with no identifiable information about the horses or results. The terminals installed in Idaho had spinning wheels, sounds and animations that mimic slot machines, but they have since been shut off.

Yet that debate has caused grumbles among lawmakers and instant racing supporters who counter that Idaho already has slot machines installed in the state on tribal reservations.

Under federal law, the tribes can only operate their own bingo and lottery operations as long as the state also authorized that form of gaming. It took a ballot initiative to determine which types of gaming devices were legal, which has since evolved into the tribe installing video gaming devices — essentially slot machines — in the tribe's casinos.

Meanwhile, Idaho's Alcohol Beverage Control bureau is currently investigating roughly 10 cases of bars operating slot machines.