An emergency bill to legalize sports wagering within Washington state’s Native American tribal casinos is now effectively one step from a full Senate vote on sending it to the governor’s office.
The Senate’s labor and commerce committee on Monday voted 5-2 to send EHB-2638 onward to a fiscal review, which is expected to pass within a week and be forwarded to a full Senate floor vote before the March 12 end of the current legislative session. If the bill passes a full Senate vote — after it passed in the House in a nighttime vote Feb. 13 — it will move to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for a signature.
Committee Chair Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, cited the potential for gambling addiction and “threat of corruption” as a reason to support the bill and limit sports gambling to within tribal casino confines.
“I think it’s very wise of us to take a small first step in moving forward with the ability to have sports gambling,” Keiser told her committee moments before the bill was forwarded to a Senate ways and means committee for final review ahead of any full floor vote.
But not all are in favor of the legislation, with some objecting to its emergency status and the urgency with which they say tribes are about to receive a sports betting monopoly that isn’t taxed.
The emergency clause added ahead of the bill passing in the House on Feb. 13 blocks it from any statewide referendum – which requires a 60% supermajority to pass gambling measures.
“I think that the state could use the infusion of revenue,” Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said in response to Keiser’s comments. “I think also what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If in fact you think there are social ills involved with gambling, why in the world would you let the tribes do it and not everybody else?”
Walsh said the bill is “terrible” and “extremely counterintuitive to the goals we’re trying to reach for equity and fairness in this state.”
In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning sports betting in all but a few states. That now has numerous states charting their own legislative course, including Washington state, where most gambling already is limited to tribal casinos.
At stake is a slice of what the American Gaming Association trade group describes as a $150 billion annual sports gambling black market nationwide. The group argues Washington could generate $50 million in annual tax revenue from legalized sports betting beyond state tribes.
The current legislation would limit any mobile betting – a Class C felony here – to within the tribal casino confines.
“Most Washingtonians do not want to see gambling in every community and on all of our devices,” Puyallup tribe chairman David Bean said during a public testimony session ahead of the vote Monday.
Bean argued sports gaming proceeds would directly fund self-governance community benefits. Tribes, he added, employ 30,000 state residents through their businesses with economic spinoffs that benefit those living both on and beyond reservations.
“Washington tribes have deep experience of over three decades of strong regulation and overseeing gaming responsibly,” Bean said. “We are trusted partners with the state in terms of effectively regulating gaming in a safe and controlled manner.”
But officials from Nevada-based Maverick Gaming LLC and other gambling interests argued tribes should not gain exclusivity without a more thorough exploration of the issue. Over the past year, Maverick has bought up 19 of the state’s 44 smaller card-room casinos — where only limited card-game gambling can occur – and wants sports gambling extended to those venues.
“We … cannot fathom why there needs to be a monopoly provided on a system to bet on sports and that it constitutes an ‘emergency,’ ” Maverick Gaming lobbyist Vicki Christopherson testified.
Christopherson said the suggestion only tribes can effectively oversee sports gambling is “frankly insulting and not true” considering card rooms have been government-licensed, vetted and regulated for more than 20 years. She added it’s untrue the company wants sports betting “everywhere” through controversial mobile-gaming — which critics contend puts minors at greater risk of gambling addiction.
“We support prohibiting mobile gaming and would pledge not to pursue mobile gaming in the future if that is necessary,” she said. “What we are asking for is to be included. To have the economic opportunity that is being afforded by sports betting.”
A legal opinion issued for Maverick by former State Senator and Washington Supreme Court Judge Phillip A. Talmadge found no basis for the bill’s emergency clause because the state will derive no tax proceeds from tribal sports wagering and thus lacks any imminent threat to “public peace, health or safety.”
Several managers and employees of Maverick-owned card rooms testified at Monday’s hearing, expressing concerns about losing business to sports-betting-authorized tribal casinos and also questioning the validity of the emergency clause. One suggested the committee “apply the brakes, slow down and proceed with caution.”
But the Washington Indian Gaming Association, a group promoting tribal casino interests, released an opposing legal opinion Monday from former Attorney General Rob McKenna — who concludes the legislature’s emergency clause usage was within its purview. McKenna sees the “emergency” as the rapid growth of sports gambling and that lawmakers can claim they are protecting Washingtonians from black market forces through limited tribal-only gambling consistent with the state’s “policy of prohibiting all forms and means of gambling except where carefully and specifically authorized and regulated.”
Maverick has released results of an EMC Research poll it commissioned, in which 500 random potential November 2020 voters statewide were asked Feb. 10-12 whether they supported the tribal-only legislation. Results showed only 53% initially in favor – below the 60% supermajority needed – and that support would drop to 48% as referendum campaigning progressed.
The poll’s margin for error is said to be plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Jill R. Dorson, an industry analyst for the Sports Handle online news site that tracks sports betting legal developments nationwide, said Monday she expects Maverick and its card rooms will eventually file a lawsuit unless the emergency clause is removed.
“If this passes and it goes live, it would be the first state for sure and I assume in the long run the only state that would have tribal-only sports betting,’’ she said.
Dorson said she senses Washington lawmakers are “trying to give back to the tribes in exchange for all the things the tribes have done for the state.” She added that Maverick, a relative newcomer to Washington, hasn’t had time to effectively lobby and educate lawmakers about their card-room proposals to the same degree.