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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Gambling revenue in political sights

Spokane County traded silver for silence two years ago, an ill-advised bargain that has sidelined the Board of Commissioners while the community fights for the basing of new tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base.

The city of Airway Heights has spurned a request by County Commissioner Al French for a release from the agreement. Want out, the City Council responds, then surrender the county’s 20 percent take of the $600,000 the Spokane Tribe will distribute to local governments the first year its proposed casino opens.

Most local officials, government and business, fear a proposed tribal casino on land the city annexed will compromise the tanker effort and, ultimately, the future of the base and the 5,000 jobs it provides.

The annexation itself was a cynical effort to shield the casino site from county zoning restrictions.

The county needs its 20 percent for casino-related expenses, but accepting a gag clause compromised that rationale. French, who was not a commissioner when the agreement with Airway Heights was reached, threatened to sue if the gag is not removed.

There’s no need to go to court. If the county’s neutrality raises questions as the U.S. Department of Commerce and governor rule on the Spokanes’ casino license application, the commissioners’ motivations in 2010 will speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, on the not-very-distant horizon, a pair of Oregon measures could threaten the primacy of tribal gaming not just in that state, but in Washington, too.

Developers in Oregon are seeking voter support for a lifting of restrictions on non-tribal gaming, but limiting potential sites to a former dog-racing track barely outside Portland’s city limits. They are promoting their project as a family resort with a variety of entertainment venues. Plans for a 130,000-square-foot casino are the “tell” on their true intentions.

Certainly, operators of Oregon’s nine tribal casinos are not deceived. A competitor that close to Portland would hold the aces.

The state’s voters weren’t buying in two years ago, when a less-detailed plan was soundly defeated. And for all the detail in the new one, nothing would bind the developers to that blueprint if they get the go-ahead.

Gambling, in the form of lotteries that include video games, produces more than $1 billion in revenues for Oregon, about twice what Washington captures with its lottery and taxes on private gaming. The take from the state’s nearly 30 tribal casinos is negligible. Gov. Chris Gregoire killed a deal with the Spokane Tribe in 2005 that could have generated as much as $140 million annually from expanded gambling by all tribes.

The state’s financial woes have revived interest in a similar deal. If Oregon voters change their minds about private gaming there, the pressure for Washington to follow suit will increase. The tribes’ share of the record $2.5 billion in Washington gaming receipts climbed to 78 percent last year, also the highest level ever.

By comparison, Oregon’s lottery captures about 60 percent of gaming receipts.

When a new governor, attorney general and Legislature are in place next year in Olympia, it will be time to consider a new deal.

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