Legalized sports gambling within Washington state’s tribal casinos took another step Tuesday toward becoming reality this year.
A House appropriations committee voted 25-7 to forward sports gambling bill HB 2638 to a possible full floor vote before the March 13 end of this year’s shortened legislative session. If passed by the House, then followed with a similar Senate vote on companion bill SB 6394, the sports-gambling initiative could be forwarded to Gov. Jay Inslee by spring.
“I’m hoping to get this moving over to the Senate on a relatively fast timeline,” HB 2638 sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said in an interview moments after Tuesday’s early evening vote. “We’ll see if that happens, but with a very bi-partisan vote that we just had this evening, I think that helps.”
Peterson said with so much support from both parties, he figures it “a formality” a floor vote will be held quickly. “I’m hoping that we can get it on to the floor next week,” he said. “It’s a lift. … I still need to talk to a lot of people about it and make everybody comfortable with it, because it is an expansion of gambling.”
This is now the furthest any sports-gambling legislation has gotten in this state, which has some of the nation’s toughest anti-gambling laws. Floor votes in both legislatures require a 60% majority to pass gambling-expansion legislation.
Rep. Drew Stokesbary, the committee’s ranking Republican, voted in favor of the proposal.
“This is a reasonable middle ground,” Stokesbary told the committee moments before the vote. “I think it threads the needle nicely. It permits adults who are responsible to engage in an activity that doesn’t harm other people. But it doesn’t make it so prevalent or so pervasive in our society that we as a legislature have to worry about the morality and ethics of that.”
Sports betting became a hot topic nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a 1992 federal law prohibiting such gaming in most states. Since the law’s repeal, it’s been up to individual states to decide their own sports-gambling course and 14 have now legalized it, with roughly two dozen more working through legislation to do so.
HB 2638 impacts up to 29 existing tribal casinos throughout the state — including heavyweights such as Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Emerald Queen — and covers both professional and college sports as well as Olympic events and e-sports. But gambling on games involving Washington colleges, both public and private, would still be outlawed under the bill.
Part of the bill contains a provision to legalize online sports betting within the confines of the tribal casinos. Internet betting of any kind is currently a Class C felony within the state.
The legislation drew support across party lines.
While a victory of sorts for proponents of legalized sports gambling here, not everybody was happy with Tuesday’s outcome in what’s been a hotly contested effort behind the scenes. Public disclosure records show native tribes since December alone have poured more than $265,000 into lobbying for HB 2638 and SB 6394, a financial push that stepped up after a counter initiative backed by Nevada-based Maverick Gaming LLC to extend sports wagering beyond tribal casinos.
Maverick the past year has bought up 19 of 44 “card room” casinos in this state, where limited card gambling — such as blackjack — can be played against the “house” and not individual bettors. It backed companion bills allowing sports gaming in such facilities and racetracks as well as the tribal casinos, but neither made it out of committee.
Maverick CEO Eric Persson, a Hoquiam native, has argued that expanding sports wagering beyond tribal casinos will generate $50 million in annual state tax revenues. He also warned the current legislation is being rushed through too quickly to exclude competition and doesn’t do enough to deter Washingtonians currently engaging in illegal online sports wagering with unregulated offshore companies.
In a letter Tuesday to state lawmakers, Persson argued his card rooms are not a threat to tribal casinos in that they’re smaller, more intimate and draw customers mostly from within a three-mile radius. Persson added that “the neighborhood experience we offer and what large casino destinations offer is different and we believe there is opportunity for both entertainment options to succeed.”
Last week, Maverick reached agreement on a contract with 1,700 newly unionized card-room employees now members of Teamsters Local 117. Persson hopes the tie-in with labor resonates with Democratic lawmakers as he pushes for further amendments to expand sports gambling beyond tribal venues.
Brenda Wiest, a vice president of the Teamsters local, attended a public hearing on the sports-gaming legislation in front of the House appropriations committee last Saturday. She told the committee Maverick is now the largest state employer of Teamster union members statewide and that the proposed legislation has not taken “time to consider what impact this proposed gambling expansion could have on local card rooms that we now represent.”
But state lawmakers have thus far been receptive to limiting any initial sports betting to within tribal casino confines. Part of that is largely due to the those venues having been where any of this state’s legal gambling has been allowed for years.
Part of the concern is that sports gambling — especially on mobile devices, where an estimated 80% of it occurs nationwide — has the potential to get minors hooked if it’s too widespread throughout the state.
Tribal leaders and lobbyists dispute some of the tax-revenue claims made by Maverick. They’ve also argued before the committee that their communities pump more than $5 billion annually into the state’s economy, employ more than 30,000 Washingtonians and generate more than $728 million in annual state and local tax revenues.
David Bean, chairman of the Puyallup tribe, told Saturday’s public hearing that native communities have been “trusted partners” of state government for more than three decades of regulating their casinos “in a safe, controlled and fair manner.”
By keeping sports gambling within tribal facilities, he added, the government can best assure it remains safe, honest and reliable.
“The legislation benefits all of Washington because tribal gaming benefits tribal and non-tribal communities alike,” he said. “You know us. This is our shared homeland. We live here. We work here. We invest our resources here in Washington. And we ask that you adopt an approach to sports betting that maximizes the benefits to people and communities here in Washington.”