In a vote to expand gambling in this state beyond anything seen in decades, the Washington Senate late Thursday night approved an emergency bill authorizing sports gaming in Native American tribal casinos.
EHB 2638 was not without controversy, as commercial card room casinos complained it excludes them and denies the state up to $50 million annually in tax revenue. An emergency provision tacked on to the bill last month also assures it won't be subjected to a statewide referendum requiring 60 percent approval to pass.
While minor amendments to the bill mean it must be reapproved by the House before the March 12 end of the legislative session, that's considered a formality before it's forwarded this spring for Gov. Jay Inslee to sign. The 34-15 vote, exceeding the required 60 percent to pass gambling legislation, came after 11 p.m. PT and followed rigorous debate over use of the emegency clause and the decision to grant tribes an exclusive first crack at one of the fastest growing gaming sectors.
"The 29 tribes in Washington State have a deep historical experience overseeing responsible gaming for three decades," W. Ron Allen, CEO of Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, said in a statement issued after the vote. "We have a trusted, successful partnership with the state where we have effectively managed gaming in a controlled environment and avoided widespread expansion."
Opponents of the bill, most notably card room operator Maverick Gaming, have vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars to block EHB 2638 from becoming law.
"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," said Eric Persson, CEO of Nevada-based Maverick, which in the past year has bought up 19 of 44 in-state card rooms -- which are allowed smaller card-based gambling only. "There is a win for all licensed gaming establishments that helps both Tribal and non-Tribal communities and lawmakers have decided not to pursue it, giving up millions of dollars in tax revenue that could support local and state priorities."
Tribal leaders and officials from the Washington Indian Gaming Association (WIGA) -- a non-profit group that promotes tribal gaming interests -- testified at public hearings that revenue from sports gambling is needed for continued self-governance programs.
"Tribal gaming is government gaming," WIGA executive director Rebecca Kaldor said in a statement released after the vote. "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."
Sports gambling is illegal in Washington, as in most parts of the country. But that began shifting in May 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a quarter-century-old law banning sports betting everywhere but Last Vegas and a handful of other places.
Individual states are now free to chart their own course and several have already legalized sports gambling while dozens more -- like Washington -- are exploring proposed legislation on it.
Tribal gaming has long been controversial in Washington, the only state that derives no tax revenue from it. Former Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2005 killed a proposed new revenue-sharing gambling compact with the Spokane Tribe that was potentially worth more than $140 million for the state.
A clause in that deal allowed the expansion of other tribal casino operations without revenue sharing and 27 of the state's 29 tribes eventually signed on to the agreement.
Gregoire at the time said the move was to limit potential gambling expansion within the state. It later came out she had received more than $650,000 in campaign contributions from state tribal interests, most of which had opposed the initial revenue sharing deal.
This latest sports gaming bill, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to tribal casinos, has been in the works since last year's legislative session. An initial bill proposed last year by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, didn't make it out of committee but then a new one sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, got voted through the House at lightning speed last month.
Peterson said at the time there was pressure to get the bill passed because lawmakers worried that any further intervention from competing interests might slow momentum to where sports gaming never gets permitted here in any form.
But one of those competing interests, Maverick Gaming, obtained a legal opinion from former State Senator and Washington Supreme Court Justice Philip A. Talmadge saying there's no basis for the emergency clause usage that blocks a public vote on EHB 2638. The WIGA obtained a counter opinion from former Attorney General Robert McKenna claiming the emergency clause was justified because the "emergency" is preventing more Washingtonians from engaging in potentially dangerous illicit offshore sports gambling online.
EHB 2638 would only allow online gambling -- currently a Class C felony in Washington -- within tribal gaming premises. Critics nationwide have expressed concern that online gambling is a gateway for minors to become addicted to such activity.