February 28, 2007 in City

Tribes to get more slot-style machines Gaming pact on table

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

For more Statehouse coverage, please see our Eye on Olympia blog at www.eyeonolympia.com.

OLYMPIA – But wait, there’s more.

Less than two weeks after signing its first-ever gambling agreement with the Spokane Tribe, the state is close to signing an agreement with Washington’s 27 other gambling tribes to allow each 30 percent more slot-style machines.

Under the new agreement, which the state gambling commission will discuss on March 9 in Olympia, the total number of machines allowed would increase from about 18,225 to 27,300.

“The tribes came in and asked for a lot more than what they’ve settled for,” said Tom Fitzsimmons, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s chief of staff and one of her point people on the gambling negotiations.

Since 1998, each tribe has been limited to owning 675 of the lucrative machines. If a tribe with a large casino wanted more, it had to lease extras from other tribes.

The Spokane Compact, signed by Gregoire on Feb. 16, was the first to increase that number. It granted the tribe the right to own 900 machines, a concession that angered several lawmakers.

“It’s just a continued escalation of gambling,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

But with what appears to be continued market growth, tribes have long maintained that 675 machines are not enough. With 21 tribes operating 27 casinos in the state, virtually all available machines are in use.

So the tribes and representatives from the gambling commission and governor’s office have spent months negotiating a higher limit.

“We believe we’ve found it,” Fitzsimmons said. Under the proposed deal, every tribe in the state – including the Spokanes – would be authorized to have 975 machines.

At hearing after hearing, tribes said gambling is their only reliable source of income. “Like many tribes in the state and around the country, the Spokane Tribe must look to gaming to provide needed governmental revenues,” tribal council secretary Gerald Nicodemus told the gambling commission earlier this month. Gambling dollars will improve health care for members, education for the tribe’s children, and help diversify a reservation economy now linked to timber harvests and federal cash, he said.

“Problems which have gone unmet for many years will now be addressed,” he said. “This compact will be our best chance to impact our tribe’s future in a historic way.”

As Gregoire has repeatedly noted in recent weeks, voters have repeatedly – and overwhelmingly – rejected ballot measures to expand gambling. Many elected officials, including House Speaker Frank Chopp and Gregoire herself, say they don’t like gambling or its social costs.

But as Gregoire and Fitzsimmons describe it, the state is largely powerless to do anything except try to slow the continued growth of tribal gaming.

“The promise was made to them years ago that they would be able to grow to a certain level,” she said in late January. “Yes, there probably will be expansion in the future, to be perfectly honest with you.”

That promise, Fitzsimmons said, was part of negotiations on original compacts with tribes in the mid-1990s. The tribes were told at the time, Fitzsimmons said, that they could eventually operate 3,000 machines each. That would make Washington – a state in which the constitution once read “the Legislature shall never authorize any lottery” – home to as many as 84,000 slot-style machines.

“We’re not close to that (3,000),” Gregoire said earlier this month. “But the expectation is that every couple of years, whoever is governor will negotiate with them and let them get a little closer to that number.”

If the state stonewalls the tribes, she said, they could sue in federal court for failure to negotiate in good faith.

Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can operate the sorts of gambling that the state or non-tribal gambling facilities offer. Although they look and play much like video slot machines, the machines in Washington are actually considered a very fast lottery game, allowed because the state runs a lottery.

“We don’t limit the number of (state) lottery outlets, the number of lottery ticket sales,” Fitzsimmons said. “And the tribes would say the state doesn’t have a fundamental right to limit our market growth.”

And the market is definitely growing. The number of tribal machines has more than tripled since 2001. According to estimates by state regulators, gambling – including the state-run lottery – was a $1.8 billion industry in Washington last year. Of that, tribal gambling accounted for an estimated $1.2 billion.

Gregoire did, however, stand firm on the number of casinos and the scale of each casino under the new master compact, Fitzsimmons said. The agreement allows for more machines but does not allow for additional casinos.


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