Some form of legalized sports betting in Washington state appears closer than ever after two legislative votes in recent days moved proposed companion bills another step toward full approval.
And if not this year — shortened legislative sessions in the House and Senate that end March 13 make for a very narrow window — gambling advocates say there’s plenty of momentum to get something done by early 2021. On Thursday, SB 6394 — which would legalize sports gambling in the state’s tribal casinos — voted out of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee and headed to a potential full floor vote by next month.
“I feel like there is a strong pathway for us to get it to the governor this year,’’ Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, lead sponsor of SB 6394, said after Thursday’s committee vote. “That’s what I’m working on.’’
She’ll know more on Tuesday, the deadline for House companion bill HB 2638 to get pushed forward by an appropriations committee to a potential floor vote there. That bill was already voted out of its committee of origin late last week — the first time that’s happened for sports-gambling bills in both houses.
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, sponsor of HB 2638, said in an interview Thursday he’s confident his bill will be forwarded to the full House for a vote, and that both gambling initiatives can be fast-tracked this spring to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
“I’d say the momentum is really big right now because we control the outcome,” Peterson said. He added: “Working with our tribal partners, we have real control over the final product.”
Saldaña’s bill now awaits the scheduling of a floor vote — though it technically could get pulled back for financial review. She said she’s letting the House bill take the lead and no Senate vote will happen unless HB 2638 is approved first.
“Our intent was to have true companion bills all the way through,’’ she said. “I think that ours is a mirror of theirs. And if it is a mirror, and we don’t do any more mucking around of their version, then it can go straight to the governor.’’
Even if the bills don’t pass this time, she sees “huge’’ momentum for the January 2021 session. There will be more legislative awareness here by then, she added, and more data about sports gambling in nearby states to “help us gain more support for why we need to do something like this in Washington.’’
Sports gambling remains illegal in Washington, but the issue has gained traction since the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a 1992 federal law outlawing sports gaming in most states. Individual states now must decide how to proceed and 14 have already legalized sports betting, seven have passed legislation on it and 23 are contemplating sports-gambling bills.
Sports leagues have also formed deals with gambling entities. The NHL signed a sports betting deal in 2018 with MGM Resorts to provide it proprietary player-and-puck-tracking data. Locally, NHL Seattle, the city’s team that will take the ice in the 2021-22 season, has made Muckleshoot Casino an official partner and could benefit from additional agreements with that tribe if it and others gain sports-gambling exclusivity.
The HB 2638 was initially sponsored as HB 1975 by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, who has since stepped down to assume a full-time community ambassador and suites director role with NHL Seattle.
The team and tribe are monitoring developments in Olympia but say no future gambling deals between them are planned.
Lawmakers here have favored the tribal-only sports-gambling option, as those venues have for years been where much of this state’s legalized gambling of any kind has been allowed. They’ve felt that limiting sports betting to Washington’s tribal venues will enable the state to better control the practice and reduce the risk of problem gambling and the potential for minors to become addicted.
“The tribes, as we have seen, do an excellent job of funding problem gambling programs and that’s why I support keeping this within the tribal casino system,” Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, said in a committee executive session ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Washington allows limited gambling outside tribal facilities in “card room” casinos, but only card games like blackjack that are played against the house’ and not other individual gamblers. A separate set of companion bills, HB 2478 and SB 6277, which Nevada-based Maverick Gaming LLC pushed for in the Legislature, had called for expanded sports gaming beyond tribal lands. Maverick Gaming bought 19 of the state’s 44 licensed card rooms in the past year.
But while they received hearings in the House and Senate, the bills were allowed to expire with no votes taken.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-sponsored SB 6277 and tried unsuccessfully Thursday to have several amendments placed on the tribal-only bill before it was voted through.
King and Maverick Gaming have argued the state could earn $50 million annually from taxes on sports gambling beyond tribal casinos and that more study is needed.
“This is too big a deal to do in one session,” King told committee members. “Again, who goes to the tribal casinos? It’s the citizens of the state of Washington. … So, the citizens of the state of Washington ought to benefit from the revenue that this is going to generate.”
A component of the tribal proposal is the legalization of mobile betting, accounting for about 80% of all sports wagering. The ability to place sports bets online through mobile devices has raised nationwide concern for its potential to be abused by minors.
The tribal-only proposal would limit mobile wagering to tribal casino facilities, something lawmakers have suggested would be easier to monitor and control. Any online wagering is currently a Class C felony in Washington.
Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson said in an interview after Thursday’s vote he’d also support limiting any mobile wagering to card rooms and other licensed entities. He said his 19 card rooms total only about 285,000 square feet of space where sports gambling would occur, compared to more than 500,000 square feet for Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Puyallup tribal casinos alone.
Persson doubts the sports gambling bills will be approved this year. He vowed to keep pushing to join other gambling interests in joining forces on a more comprehensive legislative approach next January. His company employs about 2,200 state residents, including 1,700 card-room workers recently unionized under Teamsters Local 117.
“We’re pretty confident that when no bill gets passed this session, it will force all parties — the racetracks, myself and Native Americans — to come together and find legislation we can all support,” Persson said. “And grow this business in a manner that will benefit all Washingtonians.”
But Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, an advocate for tribal gambling, said tribal gaming is already the most regulated type of wagering by state and federal agencies.
“One hundred percent of our revenue goes to essential governmental services and reaches into some of the poorest communities in our state,’’ said Kaldor. “And the benefit isn’t just to us tribal members. It’s really to our entire community that we’re lifting up out of poverty.’’
She also said tribal-gambling money is spent on supplies that generate sales tax and services beyond tribal communities. Tribal governments provide jobs for more than 30,000 people statewide.
“The benefits don’t stay on the reservation,” she said.