In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed legalization of sports betting, legislatures across the country have rushed to open up betting windows. Washington’s lawmakers must exercise care before making the state the 15th with legal sports gambling.
Bills to allow sportsbooks at Washington’s tribal casinos have advanced in both the House and Senate. Each would restrict sports betting to the 29 tribal casinos, which is a flawed approach.
Lawmakers have said confining sports gaming to tribal properties would effectively restrain the spread of gambling addiction and other problems sports wagering could bring. However, tribal casinos are scattered across the state, making access convenient for most. More than 90% of Washington’s population lives within an hour’s drive of at least one casino.
The tribes have not shown that the additional revenue from sports betting is badly needed, especially considering the societal cost of opening up another form of gambling. According to the Washington State Gambling Commission, tribal gambling revenues came to nearly $2.7 billion in 2018, which was up more than $350 million from 2016.
Although casino-based gambling can be a dangerous vice, its proceeds do provide public benefits on and off reservations. A 2019 study commissioned by the tribes found that 70% of tribes’ workforce was non-Native American and found that more than 55,000 jobs were connected to tribal economic activity. Casino revenues have funded reservations’ community needs, including education, health care and housing, and small percentages go to combat smoking and problem gambling. But tribal casino revenues flow in without being subject to state taxes. With ample evidence that the casinos are highly profitable, there is little reason to cede the sports-betting market to them without allowing off-reservation businesses the same privilege.
Bills that would have enabled Washington’s 44 licensed nontribal card rooms to take up sports gambling stalled in legislative committees. Some provisions from this legislation ought to be included in the tribal bill through amendments. Private enterprises should be allowed to compete in the market and should be fairly taxed for the privilege. Estimates from one card-room owner suggested a $50 million annual tax could result from a proposed 10% sports gambling tax. That’s not a huge windfall for the state, but it’s not insignificant either given Washington’s many needs.
If lawmakers are determined to bring Washington into America’s emergent sports-gambling landscape, they must also acknowledge that tribal casinos have grown into robust economic engines. The fresh revenue stream of running a sportsbook should be shared with the free market, where it can be taxed.