An Indian gambling initiative is worded to allow casino gambling not only on tribal reservations, but on trust lands throughout the state, including downtown Tacoma and Seattle.
Initiative 651 permits unrestricted gambling on “Indian lands,” which are not further defined in the measure.
Tribes say acquiring trust land for casinos is unlikely because it would have to be approved by the federal Department of the Interior, and the governor.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” said Herb Whitish, chairman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe.
The Shoalwaters, the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Puyallup Tribe are pushing the initiative.
But there are thousands of acres of existing trust land throughout the state, some of it in urban areas.
No tribal lands exist within the city of Spokane, or near its borders, said Alfred Peone, acting superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wellpinit.
That makes the notion of putting a casino in downtown Spokane “complete hooey,” said Scott Crowell, attorney for the Spokanes.
The Puyallups, however, own trust land in downtown Tacoma, a stone’s throw from Interstate 5, according to BIA records.
The Mukleshoot Tribe owns land in an industrial area of Seattle, off the Duwamish River, BIA records show.
Crowell said if tribes were going to put gambling halls there, they already would have.
But there is nothing to legally prevent them from doing so, said Jonathan McCoy of the state attorney general’s office.
“They knew what they were doing when the initiative was worded this way,” said Stan Shore, a political consultant for an anti-651 group, made up primarily of charitable gambling organizations. “If they don’t plan to put casinos anywhere but reservations, why wasn’t it worded that way?”
Two tribes already operate casinos off the reservation: the Mill Bay casino, operated by the Colville Confederated Tribes on trust land near Lake Chelan, and the Double Eagle casino on Spokane Tribe trust land near Chewelah.
Six other tribes run casinos on reservation land under compacts negotiated with the state. The compacts strictly limit the number and types of games offered and require extensive background checks of casino staff.
The initiative, before voters in November, would remove those restrictions and allow machine gambling, including slot machines.
Unrestricted gambling is a big-money proposition for the tribes. They could make $1.7 billion a year in combined net revenues from slot machines and other games, according to gambling industry estimates.
The smell of all that cash is attracting the attention of national gambling companies, including The Bally Company of Las Vegas.
The gambling machine company dumped $20,000 into a golf tournament fund-raiser held by the Initiative 651 campaign in June, state records show.
The Public Disclosure Commission also is investigating a complaint that alleges more than $200,000 spent in the campaign so far came from deals made with Las Vegas gambling interests.
The Initiative 651 campaign denies the allegation.
The possibility of casinos off reservation land could turn off voters.
A poll by Elway Research conducted for initiative opponents shows 79 percent of voters were less likely to vote for the initiative if casinos could be built anywhere, on or off reservations.
“It’s the strongest argument against the initiative we tested,” said Shore.
Voters also appear skeptical of expanding gambling in any way. More than 80 percent of 500 voters polled statewide said they think the amount of gambling allowed now is either excessive or just right.
Overall, 51 percent said they would vote against Initiative 651, while only 24 percent said they would vote for it, the poll found.