Native American tribal casinos, now closed statewide and losing millions of dollars daily due to coronavirus fears, got a boost Wednesday when Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill authorizing sports betting within those venues.
It still could take months for any sports betting to actually occur, given the continued uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Also, the state first must negotiate sports-gaming compacts with those among the 29 Washington tribes that wish to have sports betting within their casinos.
But those discussions should begin once the immediate crisis subsides, now that HB 2638 rocketed through the House and Senate in bipartisan fashion despite at times bitter opposition from some lawmakers and state card-room operators. State tribes take in an estimated $2.8 billion annually through legalized gambling, which is used to fund a wide array of services within their communities.
“It feels timely that everything we’ve been saying is funded by our [tribal] government gaming is now in jeopardy,” said Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, a nonprofit group that promotes tribal gaming. “And so, the silver lining is that this will be an added amenity tribes can use to get our communities back up and running in a healthy way.’’
Washington becomes the 21st state where some sports betting is either taking place or awaiting launch. Numerous other states have sports-gaming legislation in the works after the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a federal law that had banned such gambling in all but a handful of places.
Individual states can now chart their own sports-gambling course.
In this year’s shortened legislative session, HB 2638, sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, gained speedy traction despite virulent opposition led by Nevada-based card room operator Maverick Gaming. The company argued that an emergency clause attached to the bill — preventing it from being subjected to a statewide referendum — was unlawful and could be struck down in court.
Maverick CEO Eric Persson, a Hoquiam native, had also pushed for his own bill — which stalled in committee — that would have allowed sports gaming beyond the tribes and within 19 of the state’s 46 card rooms his company has bought the past year.
Persson claimed the state was forgoing up to $50 million in annual tax revenues by granting tribes a sports-gaming monopoly. On March 11, after HB 2638 had been ratified by both the House and Senate, he sent a letter to Inslee asking that he veto the emergency-clause provision and put the bill to a vote.
“The issue of sports betting is not just about commercial gaming and the sovereign rights of Tribal governments, for which I have deep respect,” he wrote. “It is about how to create economic opportunities for all Washingtonians in Tribal and non-Tribal communities alike.”
Persson declined to comment Wednesday. He’d previously threatened to block the new law with a lawsuit.
But Kaldor argues tribal gambling has existed here for three decades with a proven track record. The new law limits mobile online gaming — which critics nationwide say encourages minors to gamble — to tribal casino confines.
Kaldor added the “devastation” now faced by tribal communities given casino closures underscores how badly needed the sports-gaming revenue is.
“We’re not on par with a commercial enterprise,” she said. “We are governments and government agencies.”
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