As public hearings opened Friday ahead of sending an emergency sports gambling bill for the state's Native American tribal casinos to a final Senate vote, opponents vowed to launch a fight that stretches far beyond legislative discussions.
Right before giving public testimony at the Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing, Eric Persson, CEO of Nevada-based Maverick Gaming LLC, pledged to spend millions of dollars this election cycle to prevent the bill from becoming law. Persson's company wants sports gambling expanded to the 19 in-state card-room casinos it bought over the past year and said EHB 2638 is "a pure power grab" that thwarts the public will in order to grant a monopoly to tribes.
"We're prepared to spend $20-$30 million this election cycle to protect our 2,200 employees in the state and bring this matter to the attention of all Washingtonians to educate them about what's gone on," Persson told The Seattle Times.
"Nothing's off the table. We'll do everything we can. Litigation, lobbying, TV ads, whatever it takes to get the message out there."
Maverick in recent weeks pumped $1 million into a political action committee it controls that is now funded to the tune of $1.5 million. He said the committee will focus on House and Senate campaigns involving lawmakers that supported a controversial emergency clause attached to SHB 2638 earlier this month.
That emergency designation prevents the bill from being subjected to a statewide referendum requiring 60% support to pass. Persson said Washingtonians want sports gaming beyond tribal casinos and won't support the state forgoing up to $50 million in annual tax revenue by limiting it to those venues.
"We all know there's no path to 60% if the consumer's voice is heard," Persson said. "That's why they've invoked this clause now. It wasn't an emergency before. Last year, when they talked about this, it wasn't an emergency. It only became an emergency when Maverick Gaming arrived on the scene."
The fight for the right to operate sports gaming platforms in this state has long been a high-powered, mostly behind-the-scenes fight. The state's 29 tribes and Maverick have both spent six-figure amounts on lobbyists and campaign contributions the past year trying to lure state lawmakers to their side.
For decades, tribal casinos have operated most of the legalized gambling in Washington -- a state with some of the nation's toughest anti-gambling laws. Sports gambling remains illegal statewide, but the pressure to allow it has grown since the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a federal law that had banned it everywhere but Las Vegas and a handful of other jurisdictions.
Individual states can now determine their own course and dozens have either legalized some sports gambling, or -- like Washington -- are considering legislation on it. Those who want sports gambling limited to tribal casinos here argue that it's the safest way to introduce a limited form of such gambling while preventing potential abuses, including addiction by minors.
The bill has already passed the House, and voting it out of the Senate committee is the final step before a full floor vote in that chamber. If passed there, it would be forwarded to Gov. Jay Inslee.
The emergency clause was tacked on right before the House voted the bill through earlier this month. Supporters say the "emergency" is that illegal sports gambling is growing within the state and the tribal-only allowances are needed to protect citizens from black-market dangers.
A legal opinion to that effect was obtained this week by the Washington Indian Gaming Association (WIGA) -- a group that promotes tribal gambling -- from former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. In it, McKenna concludes the emergency clause use would withstand a court challenge.
Rebecca Kaldor, WIGA executive director, testified at Friday's public hearing: "It's important that the legislature take action now so that we can eliminate the illegal market and ensure that sports betting is safe and reliable in our state."
But a legal opinion issued this month for Maverick by former state senator and Washington Supreme Court Judge Phillip A. Talmadge found nothing to justify the emergency clause because tribal gaming won't bring new tax revenues or other urgent business to the state.
Hoquiam native Persson, testifying Friday along with several operators of his company's card-room casinos -- which allow limited card-game betting only -- said the tribal legislation is "one more nail in the coffin" for such venues and the employees within them.
"If the constituents were to vote, there would be no path and I think everyone knows that here," he told the committee. "So, now what's happening is we're being excluded, we're getting run over. And it's really disappointing."