A form of pull-tab gaming is so integral to Maine’s fraternal organizations that recent changes to governing rules threaten at least one hall’s economic future and is sending the state back to the drawing board.
The sealed ticket games operate like scratch tickets: A person buys a ticket from a book which they then play with the chance to win a monetary prize. The games come in a box with a set amount of tickets and are often used at Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, Eagles clubs and Elks halls to offset expenses and provide a pastime while members gather at bars.
At the VFW post on Forest Avenue in Portland, proceeds from the games make up the bulk of the revenue. For years, it and other clubs have been listing which prizes have already been won out of each box and then discarding remaining tickets once people lose interest, which typically happens when big cash payouts are already gone.
But new rules handed down by a state regulator in March nixing those practices could cause people to lose interest in the games altogether, leaving the post in a position of no longer being able to donate to charities or keep staff, said Jared Sawyer, the quartermaster for the post. Outcry from groups has lawmakers scrambling and may prompt further revisions.
“We came into compliance with the rules of Friday, and already our game revenues are way down,” said Sawyer, a Maine National Guard member posted in Qatar who learned about the changes last week.
Sawyer has been fielding questions about how to handle the new changes via email while on deployment. It costs the post $1,400 to buy post’s games each month. The post does have to accept the loss of any tickets that do not get played, but it is a business move that allows their games to stay profitable.
New rules were finalized on March 20, but Milton Champion, the executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Unit, said he did not start getting feedback from organizations across the state until last week after a formal notice of the changes went out. The rules were proposed after his department received complaints that the games were not being run fairly.
That is because Champion said groups skew the odds by posting which awards have been won, which then discourages people from playing until a new box is opened. Throwing out the rest of the tickets also prevents people from choosing to try and win a prize. His office is also unable to verify the results of the winnings, so they do not know if posted winnings are accurate.
“Realistically, if I’m going in and playing a game, I want an equal opportunity to win something, but if you’re stopping a game early … you’re taking away my ability to win those tickets,” he said.
The state will unveil new proposed language by early next week changing some of the new rules and allow people 30 days to make written comments about the rule change, but Champion would not say what parts of the rule he would be revisiting. Rule changes will be posted on the secretary of state’s website and in some Maine newspapers.
Rep. Barb Wood, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s gaming committee, said she has heard from clubs across the state about the rule change and is talking with other committee members about how to address the issue. Lawmakers have a little over a week before they adjourn, but Wood said they could still introduce a bill or amend one not yet heard.
“Our committee is committed to ensuring our vets and vets organizations are able to stay healthy,” she said.