More Washington tribes inch closer to sports betting as new concerns arise

May 22, 2021, 7:04 AM
Sports betting...
Sports betting will soon be allowed in Washington state on tribal lands. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The battle to get legal sports betting in Washington state has been a constant since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that scrapped a law that had made it illegal in most states. The 2020 legislative session brought dueling bills – some in favor of only allowing sports wagers on tribal lands at casinos, and others pushing to expand that to existing card rooms and race tracks.

Tulalip Tribe reaches deal for first sports betting contract in Washington

In the end, only the state’s Native American tribes were allowed to host sports betting, and now the final steps are underway to make that happen, including tentative compact agreements the state has reached with 15 tribes.

On Thursday, some Republican state lawmakers were critical of language in amendments to compact agreements that appear to suggest something much broader than originally envisioned, and allow for sports betting beyond the actual casino. That was a big sticking point during debate over the bill that legalized sports wagering.

“As I study this, it’s not just the casino — it’s land under control or amenities. Can you do a mobile bet? Drive into the parking lot and bet, or the parking garage? How do you come to a geofence on where online gambling is allowed and where online betting is allowed?” asked Republican Senator Mark Schoesler, referring to the virtual perimeter tribes plan to erect around the areas where online sports betting can occur.

That would ensure those outside the zone who have not been vetted for age and other criteria can’t access the wagering.

“Premises of the gaming facility means the gaming facility, so the gaming floor and any adjacent or joining amenities. If you think about the walls that have the building that the casino is located, things like hotels, restaurants, entertainment spaces, parking garages, those types of things are all, in some cases, within those walls. So a mobile bet could be placed within that space,” explained Julie Lies, the state Gambling Commission’s tribal liaison, adding that specific carve-outs had been added barring any such activities at convenience stores and golf courses.

“As I recall, the legislation from a year ago, we all knew that it would legalize sports books within the gaming facility, that was commonly agreed upon,” Schoesler argued. “Kiosks in the facility and the premises, this expansion of mobile within premises and a geofence seems to be an expansion or change from the legislation.”

Lies recalled that there had been a lot of discussion over what constitutes the premises of a gaming facility during negotiations with the tribes.

“What we went to was a Black’s Law Dictionary definition of premises of the gaming facility. That definition includes adjoining or adjacent items to a particular building,” she explained. “We’re looking at it has to still be Indian lands; it still has to be within that property boundary of the gaming facility. So you can’t have it everywhere on the reservation, it has to be very closely connected.”

But that didn’t quiet critics.

“One of the things we heard when we heard this bill was this is going to be in the casino, when you looked at the non-tribal (card rooms), the discussion was all about, well, this will be just a great expansion. If we do this and there’s no control, there’s no control over the youth using this, all of these things, and the implication was that this this would only be done in the casino, and that was the way I interpreted it. But now with this expansion, this to me is a huge expansion,” frustrated Republican Senator Curtis King exclaimed.

King was the sponsor of failed legislation to expand the sports betting to card rooms and race tracks.

Maverick Gaming, which operates several of Washington’s card rooms, pushed hard for the bill, and had several bipartisan lawmakers and city officials backing the move in the 2021 session with a new version that contained multiple concessions. That included limiting the ability of card rooms to run sportsbooks to only existing card rooms, and stripping out their mobile betting plan due to concern over access to kids.

The company explained much of its 2,000-plus staff members typically earned upwards of $75,000 a year with great benefits, including health care and retirement – jobs that would be a welcome addition for the state as it emerged from a global pandemic that, back then, many elected officials thought would level the state economy. “Wouldn’t the revenue card rooms generate also be a bonus?,” was the basic pitch.

But for a second year in a row, the effort failed, due largely to opposition from the tribes, pointing to their virtual monopoly on gambling in the state as a perfect match for the state’s desire to limit its gambling footprint. They also stressed the state could be confident the revenue from sports gaming would go to good use, with tribal governments using the dollars for things like housing, health care, and education.

But the conversation always included, as Sen. King said, limiting the access to sports betting only to the casino, and nobody ever said anything about mobile betting from the parking lot.

“We did spend a lot of time looking at that language,” Lies said. “It needs to be connecting to that gaming facility, … so if the casino is attached to the parking lot but then there was this other building on the other side of the parking lot, the parking lot is adjacent and adjoining, not the other buildings.”

Gaming Commission Chair Bud Sizemore acknowledged during the hearing Thursday that defining geo-fenced “premises” and mobile sports betting was a very difficult part of talks with the tribes, but ultimately, in order to bargain in good faith, they had to respect the legal definition of premises.

“My question is, how can you not consider being able to gamble in a parking lot, or in a parking garage, or in an entertainment venue? Because there’s going to be young people there. How are you going to determine who’s actually making the bet? And whose phone are they using and all of these things,” King asked, adding he felt the proposed amendments amounted to “a huge expansion of gambling but only on our tribal lands.”

Should Washington state allow sports betting?

The first tribes to reach a tentative agreement with the state on sports betting were the Tulalip, Suquamish, Kalispel, and Snoqualmie tribes.

Then last week, several others signed on to the Suquamish agreement, including the Stillaguamish, Island, Puyallup, Colville, Lummi, Muckleshoot, Swinomish, Spokane, and a handful of others.

The Gambling Commission will hold public hearings on June 10, where there is likely to be more heated discussion over the mobile betting expansions, which the commission says it does not feel dramatically expands the state’s gambling footprint.

After the hearing, the commission takes its final vote, then it will need final approval from tribal leaders and Governor Jay Inslee before the deal is sent to the Department of Interior for publication in the federal register. If all of that goes well, you could potentially start placing your bets in time for the upcoming NFL season.

The process likely won’t be as smooth as some expected, with more heated debate likely over the mobile betting issue.

You can get a look at some of the proposed compact amendments here, here, here, here, and here.

Information about the June Gambling Commission public hearing, which will consist of day-long meetings over two days can be found at this link.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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More Washington tribes inch closer to sports betting as new concerns arise