North Dakota was poised to play a game of chance and change on this date in 1977. “Bingo – It’s legal in North Dakota” read the lead sentence of The Forum in Fargo. As Saturday began at the stroke of 12 AM, legal charity gambling began for the first time in North Dakota’s history.
Gambling was certainly not new to the history of government. In 1775, America’s earliest days, there was a lottery that raised money for the colonial army. Two hundred and two years later, gambling as revenue came to North Dakota.
North Dakotans in favor of the legislation argued that gambling could serve as a new method to increase voluntary taxation as other states had found in the 1960s and 1970s.
The inauguration had not come without controversy or concessions. The new gaming laws were limited to “public spirited organizations” that included civic, religious, educational and fraternal groups. These entities could now conduct games of chance that included raffles, tip jars, punchboards and the aforementioned bingo. No cards or video gaming machines were included. The generated net proceeds for each new enterprise were to be designated for “public-spirited, charitable causes.”
The launch of gambling was not without its opposition – even from the highest office in the state. Governor Art Link, no supporter of the bill, had allowed it to become law without his signature. Link announced the day before, his decision to let the bill slide into law.
With that news, a mass of would-be licensees headed to Bismarck the Friday before the law would take effect. Elks, Eagles and Moose stampeded to the attorney general’s office at the Capitol. Fifty eager organizations were granted licenses that day. The first went to Minot VFW Post 753.
Flooded with gaming license applicants, assistant attorney general Dale Sandstrom’s office worked extended hours. The newspaper reported that “from then on, Sandstrom was a man on the run.” One of his secretaries reported, “I think the phone’s grown into his ear today.” Sandstom said his office had relied on the governor’s word and was therefore legally secure in issuing the licenses the day before the law took effect.
In the past 35 years the state’s gaming has had successes and taken hits. But nothing can quite compare to the excitement at its introduction in 1977.
Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark
Dill, Joe, editor 1988 North Dakota 100 Years, Forum Communications Co.