Is it legal for bars, restaurants to have video gambling machines in Wisconsin?

Slot machine

After owners of a Middleton bar pleaded guilty to skimming cash from video gambling machines, News 3 Now started asking about whether it’s legal for bars and other establishments to have these machines to begin with.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice said under a law passed during former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration, the DOJ only has jurisdiction over the issue if an establishment has more than five machines. If the restaurant, bar or convenience store has five machines or fewer, it falls under the Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s jurisdiction.

Under Wisconsin state law, a video gambling machine (also called video gaming device) is a machine that allows a player to win something of value, like an award or prize.

DOR Communications Director Patty Mayers said in a statement, “It is not legal. It is a violation of Wisconsin law to have a video gambling machine on any licensed or permitted premises.”

So why do establishments in Wisconsin have these machines?

“Even while state statute says that they’re not legal, the penalty for five or fewer of those machines makes it that there’s really not much of a risk for an operation to have them in their establishment as long as they’re operating them correctly,” said Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Mayers said if the establishment has a Class B license, five or fewer machines means a $500 forfeiture per machine. If there are more than five machines, the penalty is a Class I felony. If the establishment has something other than a Class B license, it is a Class I felony, up to a $10,000 fine or up to three years and six months of prison time or both.

She said under state law, local municipalities can, by ordinance, prohibit all forms of gambling, including video gambling machines, on any licensed or permitted premises. If that is the case, a penalty could include seizing the device, destroying the device and/or forfeiting a liquor license.

Quam said a number of taverns and bars that are members of her organization have the machines, but for the most part, as long as the machines aren’t causing issues, the establishments are left alone.

“I think law enforcement feels that …. they’ve got higher priorities that they’d like to take on besides dealing with the five or fewer gaming machines that might be in an establishment,” Quam said.

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