In a vote that expands gambling in this state beyond anything in more than a decade, the Washington Senate late Thursday night approved an emergency bill authorizing sports betting in Native American tribal casinos.
The 34-15 vote on EHB 2638 followed two hours of sometimes acrimonious debate over the granting of what some call an untaxed tribal monopoly as well as an emergency clause shielding the bill from any statewide referendum. Commercial card-room casinos have complained bitterly that the bill cuts them out of the process and forgoes up to $50 million in annual state-tax revenue.
But those favoring the bill say it’s a measured first step.
“We are not looking at widespread commercial gaming throughout our community — which I really don’t think the people of Washington state want to see,” Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said from the floor moments before the vote. She added: “That is why it is so wise for our state to take a very small step and work with our trusted partners in the tribes who have shown their ability to contain problems.”
In a statement after the vote, W. Ron Allen, CEO of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said: “The 29 tribes in Washington State have a deep historical experience overseeing responsible gaming for three decades. We have a trusted, successful partnership with the state where we have effectively managed gaming in a controlled environment and avoided widespread expansion.”
But during the Senate floor debate, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Whatcom, warned that lawmakers were unnecessarily creating a monopoly when the state could use additional tax revenue from expanding sports betting to card rooms.
“This is a heck of a partnership,” he said. “I mean, they [tribes] get everything and the taxpayers get nothing on this partnership.”
Minor amendments to the bill mean it must be re-approved in the House next week — a formality before Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign it into law. It will likely take months after that for legal sports gaming to happen, because the state must first negotiate a new compact with tribes.
Also, Nevada-based Maverick Gaming, which recently bought 19 of the state’s 44 card rooms, has vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars to block EHB 2638 from becoming law through litigation, campaign contributions, advertisements and lobbying.
“On behalf of our 2,200 employees and their families who live and work here in Washington State, we are profoundly disappointed that the State Senate has approved a tax-free monopoly for sports betting in Tribal casinos that is also tied to a manufactured ’emergency’ to prevent a public vote,” Maverick CEO Eric Persson said in a release after Thursday’s vote.
Others contend the tribes generate billions for the state economy and need sports gambling revenue to self-govern.
“Tribal gaming is government gaming,” Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association — a group promoting tribal casino interests — said in a post-vote release. “It is much different from commercial gaming. Indian gaming funds essential services desperately needed in our communities — education, natural resources, human services, housing and infrastructure, just to name a few.”
Momentum to legalize sports gambling nationwide has surged since May 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning betting everywhere but Las Vegas and a handful of other places. Individual states can now chart their own course, and several have legalized sports gambling. Dozens more are exploring legislation.
Tribal gaming has long been controversial in Washington, the only state deriving no tax revenue from it. In 2005 then-Gov. Christine Gregoire killed a proposed new revenue-sharing gambling compact with the Spokane Tribe potentially worth more than $140 million for the state. A clause allowed the expansion of other tribal-casino operations without revenue sharing, and 27 of the state’s 29 tribes signed on.
Gregoire at the time said the deal was to limit potential in-state gambling expansion. It later came out she’d received more than $650,000 in campaign contributions from tribal interests, most of which opposed the initial revenue-sharing deal.
Present-day EHB 2638, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to tribes, has rocketed through both legislatures since January.
But the emergency clause added last month ahead of House approval has generated increased legal debate. Former State Senator and Washington Supreme Court Justice Philip A. Talmadge wrote an opinion stating there’s no urgent matter justifying the clause’s use while onetime Attorney General Robert McKenna opined it was valid because the “emergency” is the state wanting to protect Washingtonians increasingly partaking in black market sports gambling.
Much of Thursday’s debate involved the emergency clause, which opponents say was used only because untaxed, tribes-only gaming would never survive a public vote. A proposed amendment scrapping the clause failed 28-21, but not before some testy words from the floor.
“The [tribal] lobbyists that are getting paid $100,000 to be here this evening are doing a great job,” Ericksen quipped at one point.
Rep. John Braun, R-Centralia, added: “I do not buy that this is somehow a crisis. This wasn’t a crisis when any of the bills were dropped this session, there was no emergency clause [invoked] then. It wasn’t a crisis last fall. I don’t think it’s a crisis now.’’
But Keiser supported the clause’s use, saying EHB 2638 can’t be delayed by a referendum because the Washington State Gambling Commission needs $6 million in funds allocated by the bill to “go after the illegal gaming process that’s going on right now in sports gambling in our state.’’