A House bill allowing sports gambling on tribal lands has cleared the legislature after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision ruled that states have the authority to legalize it.
The legislation drew majorities in both chambers and is viewed by supporters as a conservative approach to expanding legal gambling. However, the proposal also garnered criticism from those who say it provides a de facto monopoly to tribes and denies voters the ability to overturn the law via referendum.
“It’s hard to say we’re going to let one group do this and not let a lot of another group,” Sen. John Braun (R-20) told colleagues prior to the March 5 vote. “I cannot agree that we’re going to keep this from going to a vote of the people.”
Gambling in Washington is regulated through the state Gambling Commission, a five-member board appointed by the governor. The commission currently has gaming compacts with 29 Indian tribes in the state, 22 of which operate casinos. A limited form of unlicensed sports gambling is permitted throughout Washington. According to a commission report, gambling generated $3.46 billion in net receipts during the 2019 fiscal year.
ESHB 2638, sponsored by House Commerce & Gaming Committee Chair Strom Peterson (D-21), allows the tribes to operate sports gambling operations on tribal land. Certain sports such as minor leagues would be excluded from wagers. The bill also allocates $6 million to the Gambling Commission for enforcement of illegal sports wagering regulations. Since the 2018 SCOTUS decision, 26 states have legalized sports gambling.
While the Commission remained neutral on the bill, the legislation was backed by the Washington Indian Gaming Association and tribal casinos such as Yakima Legends. However, businesses such as Maverick Gaming that operates 19 cardrooms in the state argued it’s unfair to prohibit sports gambling at their locations. A proposed Senate amendment by Republican Whip Ann Rivers (R-18) would have permitted them to do so, but it was rejected.
“I feel like one child is beating the daylights out of the other child and I feel helpless to try and create an even playing field for the two of them,” she said.
“Why do you deny this opportunity to cardroom people?” Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) said. “Why do you deny your citizens the opportunity who might not live close to a tribal casino the chance to go and participate in this activity?”
Supporters like Vice President Pro Tempore Steve Conway (D-29) argued in favor of a restrained approach toward legalization. “We all need to recognize this is a major change. We are touching a different generation of people with this bill. I think we all need to be wise and see how it impacts people in our state.”
However, Rivers said she was “skeptical that we are ever going to see the cardrooms get this. It was a talking point.”
Another amendment sponsored by Ericksen but not adopted would have imposed a 10 percent sales tax on tribal sports wagering. “It’s only fair to say if you’re going to grant a group a monopoly, there should be some revenue-sharing that goes to the rest of Washington state for that business activity – or allow it to everybody.”
Also debated was the bill’s emergency clause that causes it to take effect immediately and prevents voters from voting on a referendum. While Braun said it was unnecessary, President Pro Tempore Karen Keiser (D-33) said “there are several legal cases under the Gambling Commission that need to be prosecuted.”
However, Senate Minority Leader Marj Schoesler (R-9) said the enforcement case concerned a “drag queen…putting on MC’s for bingo for seniors – that’s not an emergency.”
ESHB 2638 will require Governor Jay Inslee’s signature before it becomes law.