OLYMPIA – The odds in favor of sports betting becoming legal at tribal casinos in Washington got substantially better last week as the House passed a proposal with overwhelming support.
The bill would allow tribes to renegotiate their compacts with the state to add forms of sports betting inside their casinos and set aside money for the state Gambling Commission to beef up enforcement of a lucrative type of gambling that other states are adding.
“There’s a lot going on right now,” Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said. “We have to be cognizant of ‘What are other states doing and what’s the national mood?’ ”
Under state law, gambling legislation needs to be approved by at least 60%, but the sports betting bill far exceeded that, passing on an 83-to-14 count. Supporters and opponents were on both sides of the political divide.
Riccelli and most of the Spokane delegation voted yes, but Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat who has opposed gambling expansion starting with the initiative to allow a state lottery, voted no.
“I just think people have plenty of ways to lose money in games of chance,” Ormsby said, adding he realized that under federal law, gambling is one of the few lucrative enterprises available to tribes and “I’m fine with that.”
Lawmakers approved an amendment that would allow the bill to take effect as soon as it is signed into law, and for the Gambling Commission to get a $6 million loan from the state General Fund to step up enforcement of illegal sports gambling. That money would be repaid by the middle of 2021 with gambling proceeds that go into the Gambling Revolving Account.
But they did not agree to calls for expanding sports betting to privately owned card rooms or racetracks, options which had been rejected by a House committee as too much, too fast.
Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, said the full House should at least have had the chance to debate whether those other venues should be allowed to offer sports betting, and there was no reason to have the law take effect immediately, rather than 90 days after the session was over, as most bills.
“Do we have to start betting tomorrow?” Vick asked, adding the provision seemed like a way to keep voters from overturning the law by a referendum.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the House’s only enrolled tribal member, said opponents were wrong to look at the casinos’ proceeds as strictly tribal money. The money the casinos make go back into the local communities through employee wages, she said.
“This isn’t us or them. These are Washington casinos,” Lekanoff said.
The House also turned down a proposal by Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, to take half of the money a tribe would earn from sports gambling and use it to replace culverts that are blocking the path of salmon to and from their spawning grounds.
“This is brand-new revenue,” Orcutt said. Since the tribes weren’t expecting it, the state should get half of that new money until the fish passages on the lands for the tribe that runs a casino are replaced. After that, the tribe would get its full share.
But Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said the responsibility for replacing the culverts isn’t something the tribes and the state have negotiated. Rather, it was a result of the tribes suing the state, and obtaining a federal court order that the state was violating a treaty responsibility.
“It would be totally absurd to have the tribes pay for a state treaty obligation,” Hansen said.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which had identical legislation approved by the Labor and Commerce Committee but held in the Ways and Means Committee, which controls the budget.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said that was by design. With a short session and the bill moving through the House, the Senate decided to wait for the House bill to come over. Senators haven’t counted likely votes for sports betting, so it’s too early to predict it will pass, he said.
“We don’t know exactly what the level of support is, but the House vote certainly makes it a viable bill,” Billig said.