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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Don’t give tribal casinos a monopoly on sports betting

There’s an urgent situation in Washington state that requires emergency legislation, according to the Legislature. Not the coronavirus outbreak, mind you, but this: Allowing sports betting in tribal casinos.

What’s the emergency? Apparently, a burning need to avoid public scrutiny of the bill (EHB 2638).

By passing the bill with an emergency clause – claiming the bill is necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health or safety – the Legislature prevents a public referendum on the bill that would require 60% support for passage.

There is zero justification for this anti-democratic approach. Washington has been slow to legalize various forms of gambling, confining casino gambling to tribal lands with the exception of card-room casinos like the 19 owned by Maverick Gaming LLC – whose CEO is livid about passage of this bill. He called it a “pure power grab” that gives tribal casinos a monopoly on sports betting.

“We’re prepared to spend $20-$30 million this election cycle to protect our 2,200 employees in the state and bring this matter to the attention of all Washingtonians to educate them about what’s gone on,” CEO Eric Persson told the Seattle Times.

This really is a move the public should be allowed to weigh in on. Limiting sports gambling to tribal casinos means the state won’t get a cut of the action – Persson estimates the state will lose about $50 million a year in annual tax revenue as a result.

This wasn’t a partisan issue, either. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for and against the bill. From the local delegation, only Sens. Shelly Short and Mike Padden, and Rep. Timm Ormsby had the good sense to vote no.

Sports gambling, once limited to back-room bookies, is coming out into the open, thanks to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that left its prohibition or regulation to states. Washington has been considering sports gambling for more than a year – some emergency, huh?

There are two competing approaches for allowing sports gambling in the state – the “emergency” legislation will limit it to tribal casinos. The alternative was to also allow it at racetracks and card rooms (with limitations on in-state college betting).

Proponents of the tribal-only legislation consider it a way to dip a toe in the water, “a slow and steady way to kind of enter into this new arena of gambling,” as House Commerce and Gaming Committee Chairman Strom Peterson put it.

Persson counters that limiting legal sports gambling to tribal casinos will do nothing to stop illegal sports gambling elsewhere in the state. He has promised to fight the emergency clause and released a legal opinion from former Washington Supreme Court Judge Philip A. Talmadge that concluded there was no basis to deem the bill an emergency measure.

“An emergency clause to this legislation, claiming that either bill is necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health or safety is highly suspect and will only ensure lengthy litigation testing such a legislative assertion,” Talmadge wrote.

If the Legislature wants to allow sports gambling in Washington, it shouldn’t give a monopoly to tribal casinos – especially using a sham emergency declaration to avoid public input. The Legislature should allow competition and collect the millions of dollars in tax revenue that would result.