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For now, no more electronic pull tabs in North Dakota gas stations, grocery stores

During fiscal year 2021, North Dakotans spent $1.3 billion on electronic pull tab machines. The state is on track to spend $1.8 billion on e-pull tab machines by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2022.

PHOTO: E-tabs or Electronic Pull Tabs
Electronic pull tab machines sit in the Blarney Stone Pub in downtown Bismarck on July 3, 2019.
John Hageman / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Anticipating a jump in electronic pull tab machines in gas stations and grocery stores, North Dakota officials have started taking steps to clarify state law to limit new machines at such locations.

North Dakota allows e-pull tab machines in bars, but four gas stations and one grocery store in the state currently have these gambling machines based on the state Legislature's 1994 definition of a "bar" — a retail alcoholic beverage establishment.

North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said these sites were allowed because of a loose interpretation of what a bar is.

The North Dakota Gaming Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday, May 19, to approve a new definition that says a bar is a place that sells retail alcoholic beverages but not including "off-sale liquor stores or gas stations, grocery or liquor stores."

Wrigley said an "explosion of these machines would have occurred without this language being changed." He said having e-pull tab machines in gas stations, convenience stores, liquor stores or grocery stores goes "well beyond the legislative expectations and intent with the existing law."


Bismarck, New Salem, Glen Ullin and Grassy Butte each have a gas station with an e-pull tab machine, said Deb McDaniel, director of the gaming division in the attorney general's office. A Hugo's grocery store in Grand Forks also has an e-pull tab machine.

These five sites will be allowed to keep their machines, Wrigley said. However, he said he will not approve new machines in gas stations or liquor, convenience or grocery stores because of the State Gaming Commission's recent vote.

The Gaming Commission's vote was just one step in a longer process that needs to occur for the new definition of a bar to be officially adopted. State legislators ultimately have the power to change the law to reflect the commission's new definition, stick with the original definition, or create a different definition.

Four years ago, lawmakers in the Administrative Rules Committee voted down a definition change for the word "bar," which was similar to the one the Gaming Commission approved on Thursday, said Gaming Commission Chairman Ian McLean.

At that time there were no e-pull tab machines in the state, McDaniel said.

Wrigley's office supports changing the definition of a bar, stating that if there's going to be a large e-pull tab expansion into grocery stores, gas stations and liquor and convenient stores, it should come from the Legislature and not from a loophole.

On top of the five known sites that exist because of the loophole, McDaniel said that if there was a large increase in e-pull tab machines in gas stations, liquor stores or grocery and convenience stores, the state would not have enough employees to properly regulate them.

During fiscal year 2021, North Dakotans spent $1.3 billion on e-pull tab machines, McDaniel said. The state is on track to spend $1.8 billion on e-pull tab machines by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2022.


Wrigley said North Dakotans should ultimately have the say about where e-pull tab machines are located in the state, and the best way to take action that's reflective of what people want is through the Legislature.

"It was the right time to (clarify the law) now before any more horse run out of the barn and let the Legislature decide a year from now whether they want to open the door or keep the door shut," Wrigley said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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