Proposed legislation on sports gambling in Washington state tribal casinos has been forwarded to a full Senate vote by week’s end despite concerns about a controversial emergency clause attached to it.
A Senate Ways & Means Committee rejected calls Monday to scrap the emergency clause, which blocks EHB-2638 from being subjected to a statewide referendum requiring 60% support to pass. Instead, the committee voted the bill forward despite protests that say it grants an untaxed monopoly to the state’s Native American tribes while hurting smaller commercial card-room casinos.
The bill was resoundingly approved 83-14 by the House last month, so the upcoming Senate vote is the final major step before forwarding the legislation to Gov. Jay Inslee.
“This is the wise and cautious approach to take,” committee Chair Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said shortly before the bill was voted through.
Keiser added that authorizing such gaming beyond tribal casinos “would open us up to trouble” through a potential widespread proliferation of it. But those opposed to the bill, including Nevada-based Maverick Gaming — which in the past year acquired 19 of the state’s 44 commercial card-room casinos — argue their venues should also gain access to the lucrative sports gambling market.
Committee members Monday did amend EHB-2638 to exclude minor league sports from the gambling it authorizes. That means the bill technically must be reapproved by the House once the Senate passes it — but that’s considered a formality given the overwhelming vote last month.
Sports gambling has long been illegal in Washington and almost everywhere nationwide. But things began changing in May 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court quashed a federal law banning such gambling in all but a few jurisdictions — leaving it to individual states to now decide their own course.
Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson argued in public hearings held by the committee last Friday that the state is forgoing up to $50 million annually in state tax revenues by not authorizing sports gambling beyond tribal venues. He added the only reason the emergency clause was invoked was because lawmakers know Washingtonians would never approve the bill as is.
Persson has vowed to spend up to $30 million this election cycle on litigation, campaigning, television advertisements and anything else to block the bill from becoming law.
Senators on Monday debated an amendment to remove the emergency clause, but it was defeated 14-10. Those favoring the clause’s use say the illicit sports gaming Washingtonians are partaking in constitutes an “emergency” and that allowing such gambling in limited form within tribal casinos could potentially safeguard them from black-market abuses.
Others suggest the emergency designation has no basis, claiming the fact the state won’t gain tax revenue from tribal sports gambling means there’s no pending fiscal urgency to justify invoking the emergency clause.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who proposed the amendment to remove the clause, told the committee its usage constitutes “a created crisis” that is “just about power politics” to speed the legislation through without a public vote.
“What I am certain of is that whatever decision we make, we are absolutely wrong to take the choice away from the voters,” Braun said.
Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, echoed that sentiment.
“We are saying to the people of Washington that we don’t value their input,” she said.
But committee chair Keiser rebutted that lawmakers “are doing due diligence with this approach” and that a recent legal opinion by former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna validates the clause’s use.