A renewed push is underway to expand sports betting in Washington state beyond tribal casinos, this time with a couple of noteworthy twists attached.
The filing Wednesday of a Senate bill aimed at widening the scope of such gambling to include the state's licensed card rooms and racetracks is once again being driven by Nevada-based Maverick Gaming. But unlike a similar, failed effort last year, SB 5212 is now a bi-partisan push with the pitch that tax revenues derived from sports gambling can help the state's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The only legal sports gaming in Washington was signed into law last spring for Native American tribes, but has yet to take effect as government compacts are still being negotiated. Lawmakers last winter had also rebuffed a Republican-sponsored bill seeking to open sports gambling to non-tribal competition. Maverick Gaming had pushed the bill, arguing unsuccessfully the state stood to gain financially through taxes generated by sports gaming beyond tribal casinos.
But that rejected argument happened before the pandemic triggered widespread business shutdowns and revenue losses the state is now trying to recoup.
"Some people are going to be supportive and some people aren't, but at the end of the day the product that we're trying to offer the state is what's desired by constituents," Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson said this week as the new Senate bill was being readied. "The tax revenues that we can generate are desired by Olympia."
SB-5212, co-sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima) and majority floor leader Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood), would apply only to existing card rooms and racetracks. It allows for online sports gambling, but only taking place within the limits of the gaming venues.
No licenses would be granted before the sports gaming compacts currently being negotiated with tribes are completed.
Persson, a Hoquiam native whose company controls 19 of Washington's 44 licensed card rooms, has estimated up to $50 million in state taxes can be generated annually off sports gambling. The company says it already pays about $13 million annually to local governments as part of a tax of up to 20% cities and counties can impose on all non-tribal gambling activity in-state.
"It's no secret COVID has been devastating both in Washington and around the world," Persson said. "I think that it's a lot harder to turn down $100 million biennially than it was maybe a year ago."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who'd previously opposed sports betting for his state, last week announced that he'll make it a central part of his new policy proposals to help rebuild its pandemic-battered economy.
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 — while lobbying heavily against outside competition. Washington allows limited gambling outside tribal facilities in "card room" casinos, but only card games such as blackjack and some poker are allowed.
The pressure to legalize sports gambling has grown nationwide 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 Washington joined two dozen others last year in legalizing it in some form. But this is also one of only three states nationwide — New Mexico and North Carolina being the others — that allows sports gaming only for tribal casinos and no one else.
State lawmakers have long argued that Washington's tribal casinos have a three-decade proven track record of offering safe, responsible gambling. But the bill's co-sponsor, Liias, said it "makes sense" now to look at possible expansion given negotiations on tribal sports gaming are on their way to being finalized.
"I view this as sort of an opening of that dialogue and working on, 'How do we make sure we can do this in a safe and regulated way?' " said Liias, who has two card rooms within his district. "So, we're continuing to let the tribal casinos go first, but respecting the fact that there are workers involved and that particularly there's an opportunity to create family-wage jobs — which has been a real game changer in this industry."
Liias said a handful of his fellow Democrats have expressed interest but wouldn't guess on his chances of succeeding this session.
Tribal gaming entities are not subject to state tax, though proponents argue they provide ancillary state revenues by spending on supplies and services that generate sales taxes beyond tribal communities. "The benefits don't stay on the reservation," Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association — which promotes tribal gaming interests — said last year when the new law was being passed.
Kaldor added that tribes employ about 30,000 people statewide, and they need gambling revenues to run their communities.
"One hundred percent of our revenue goes to essential governmental services and reaches into some of the poorest communities in our state," she said.
The relatively recent fight to operate sports gaming platforms in this state has been a high-powered, mostly behind-the-scenes fight. The state's 29 tribes and Maverick both spent six-figure amounts on lobbyists and campaign contributions in the year preceding last spring's approval of the new law and have repeated that ahead of this current expansion attempt.
Maverick Gaming has the support of Teamsters Local 117, the union representing the company's 2,000 statewide employees. Brenda Wiest, vice-president of legislative affairs for the local, said adding sports gambling would create roughly 200 new jobs at the card rooms — many of them family-wage.
"If you've legalized it for one group, it seems blatantly unfair to not allow it for others who fit that category of business when that would improve those business interests," Wiest said, adding that Maverick nearly overnight has become her local's largest private sector employer in the state.
Maverick Gaming two years ago embarked on a buying spree of in-state card rooms. Part of that push was in anticipation of sports gambling being legalized here, and Persson feels last year's stalled legislative effort raised enough awareness to garner his card rooms more serious consideration this time around.
"When I came to Washington, access to Olympia was very low," he said. "I think last year we made great progress, both at the Olympia level and more importantly the communities within which we operate."
While Persson makes no promises he'll succeed this session, he added: "I can tell you, Maverick isn't going anywhere. And eventually, I think that the state of Washington is going to see things the way that we do. I'm optimistic we're going to have a partnership that's going to be a great service to constituents and generate a lot of tax dollars that are badly needed."
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