Lawmakers at a state Senate committee hearing last week on a bipartisan bill to broaden sports gambling in Washington marveled openly that more than 1,800 people had signed into an online legislative portal to support or oppose the proposal.
Among 1,041 signees opposing SB 5212 – which would allow card rooms and racetracks to soon offer sports gaming, joining tribal casinos that already have been legalized to do so – were 17 registered lobbyists representing 14 of the state’s 29 federally recognized Native American tribes.
Though the lobbyists were a fraction of those expressing an opinion, public disclosure records show their firms were paid $1.16 million last year by those tribes to push their interests with state politicians.
That’s just a sampling of money tossed around in the battle for a sports-betting cut of an overall Washington gambling industry pegged by state enforcement authorities at $3.43 billion – with 82% generated by tribal casinos.
The smaller card rooms – generating 8% – say allowing them sports betting could create $50 million in yearly tax revenue inapplicable to non-taxed tribes and help a COVID-19-battered state economy.
But tribes dismiss that estimate as inflated tenfold. And they’ve told politicians they want no competition infringing on a de facto sports gambling monopoly vital to financing their self-government community programs.
“I mean, I don’t have a nice way to say it,” said Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, which promotes tribal gaming benefits. “We are providing services for poor people. They are buying vacation homes and flying on private jets.”
But part of the yearly $2.8 billion net gambling receipts accumulated by 22 tribes operating 29 casinos has gone toward an entrenched political lobby.
Over the past five years that the sports-gaming debate has heated up locally, disclosure records show tribes, their business interests and George’s WIGA spent just under $7 million on state-level political contributions – mainly House and Senate lawmaker campaigns and fundraising committees for both parties.
Of that, $1.35 million was spent last year, when a bill authorizing sports gaming in tribal casinos was passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. Negotiations continue between the state and five tribes on compact deals to initially implement such gambling in their casinos – perhaps by this year – with others to follow.
The U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 quashed a federal law banning sports betting in most states. Two dozen other states have authorized it, but only two, Colorado and North Carolina, like Washington approved tribal but not commercial sports gaming.
Gambling is one of myriad legislative issues for tribes, but its disproportionate importance was evidenced by so many lobbyists opposing SB 5212 ahead of last week’s Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs committee hearing.
In public testimony at the hearing, George, also a registered lobbyist, suggested the true intent of card-room owners is to eventually bypass SB 5212 parameters and implement statewide mobile gaming. Many experts say mobile gaming is addictive, though the bill would allow it only within card-room and racetrack confines.
Mobile gaming will be similarly restricted to tribal casino confines.
SB 5212 – co-sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima) and majority floor leader Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) – specifies that card rooms wouldn’t begin sports gaming before tribal casinos.
But to George, saying this a battle for equal treatment is “irresponsible” when Native American communities, many rural and isolated, depend on gaming money for self-government.
“Any impact to our property,” she said of losing revenue to commercial gaming, “would mean a decline in central governmental services.”
The target of George’s comments is Maverick Gaming, which since 2019 has purchased 19 of 43 state card rooms and is on its second legislative go-round seeking sports-gaming authorization. Unlike full-fledged tribal casinos exclusively authorized under Washington’s strict gaming laws, nontribal card rooms have mainly local patrons rather than tourists and can offer only select card games.
Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson, a Hoquiam native, isn’t shy about spending on lobbyists and political campaigns to counter the tribal lobby.
“Their issue is they want sports betting for themselves,” he said.
But gaining traction in Olympia wasn’t easy.
“The card rooms were a very fractured industry – they had no representation, and they had no voice,” Persson said. “And when we started trying to talk to people it was nearly impossible.”
Public disclosure records show the five biggest tribal contributors to campaigns since 2016 – Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Tulalip, Swinomish and Kalispel – operate some of the state’s most lucrative casinos. The Puyallup Tribe, owner of the Emerald Queen Casino, led with $1.985 million in contributions, while Muckleshoot – whose namesake casino is the state’s biggest – gave $1.245 million. Tulalip, with its namesake casino and a newly opened Quil Ceda Creek Casino, gave $564,693.
Last year Muckleshoot contributed $367,250, Puyallup $262,953 and Tulalip $122,500 to various politicians and committees.
Annual contributions to legislative candidates are capped at $2,000. But funding to political action committees (PAC) of both parties is mostly unlimited, enabling larger amounts to be funneled to politicians.
The largest tribal money recipients, typical of contributions by serious in-state power players, were the main party PACs – the Truman and Kennedy Funds for Democrats in the House and Senate, respectively, and Reagan Fund and The Leadership Committee on the Republican side.
Of $37.6 million collected by those PACs from outside contributors the past five years, tribes and the WIGA supplied $2,344,000. As a block, tribal interests contributed the second most of any outside individual or collective entity, besides the $3,670,000 from Service Employees International Union locals.
Tribes gave the funds $533,000 last year – Truman receiving $188,000, Kennedy $150,000, Reagan $102,500 and The Leadership Council $92,500.
Likewise, Maverick’s initial legislative spending in late 2019 gave those funds $25,000 apiece. But it changed course last year, supplying only $5,000 to The Leadership Council and reallocating elsewhere.
Public disclosure records show Maverick, via its Washingtonians Win PAC, from October 2019 through this past December spent more than $890,000 – just under $400,000 on political contributions and the rest mainly on lobbying, advertising and polling. About $741,000 was spent last year, ahead of Maverick’s first legislative push and current SB 5212 backing, while attempting to block tribes-only sports-gaming approval last winter.
To counter Maverick opposition and hasten approving tribal sports gaming during last year’s shortened legislative session, House lawmakers attached a controversial “emergency clause” shielding the bill from a statewide referendum requiring 60% support to pass. The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), claiming illegal sports wagering constituted an “emergency” that gambling enforcement funding within the bill could offset.
That was ridiculed as a “power grab” by Persson and some Republican lawmakers. Persson vowed a court challenge but, after tribal sports gaming became law, instead created a PAC called Washingtonians Win in the 19th that spent $207,000 trying to defeat Walsh in his 19th District reelection bid.
The spending included attack ads on highway billboards, aimed at Walsh’s emergency-clause use. Walsh still won handily, though Maverick had served notice that those opposing its objectives – especially through controversial tactics – could be targeted during elections.
Persson makes no apologies, describing tactics by tribes and their political allies as “disingenuous engagement” – such as the emergency clause and claims about nefarious mobile wagering intentions.
George and some lawmakers label Maverick an “out of state” conglomerate siphoning away Washington money.
Though headquartered in Nevada and financially backed by the New York-based HG Vora Capital Management hedge fund – managing $5 billion in assets, with gaming stakes in Caesar’s Entertainment and William Hill – Maverick employs 2,000 Teamster-unionized Washingtonians, and most of its venues are here. In recognition of that and perhaps to silence detractors, the company is relocating its headquarters to Kirkland.
Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet supports sports gaming for card rooms, two of which are in her city and Maverick owned. Local governments get a tax cut of card-room revenue, and Maverick estimates it paid municipalities $13.1 million last year, including $113,000 for Kirkland.
“I just happen to believe that we need these kinds of shots in the arm for our own economy as well,” Sweet said. “To make it an exclusive ability to have sports betting only at tribal casinos just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Sweet added that “good neighbor” Maverick joined her local Chamber of Commerce and did Fourth of July volunteer work. The company’s Maverick Cares foundation in November and December donated 8,000 holiday meals to families within card-room communities.
For Persson, the community work, lobbying and contributions help garner political support.
“You can’t change the system if you don’t become part of the process,” Persson said. “And so, yeah, we engage in the process. And we’ll continue to support candidates, senators and representatives who we think will benefit Maverick Gaming and our card rooms. We’ll absolutely do that.”
Lawmakers favorable to Maverick now include Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) – who also is the husband of Kirkland Mayor Sweet – and his fellow Kirkland House Democrat Amy Walen. They and Rep. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek), Rep. Matt Boehnke (R-Kennewick), Rep. Larry Hoff (R-Vancouver) and Rep. Brandon Vick (R-Vancouver) sent a bipartisan letter Feb. 2 supporting SB 5212 to the Senate committee ahead of last week’s hearing.
Maverick last year also paid $141,000 to Coaxis Public Affairs for the services of lobbyists Vicki Christophersen and Brooke Davies. Christophersen is a heavy hitter, credited with transforming Washington’s legalized marijuana industry.
Still, Maverick’s compensation to Coaxis was a fraction of the $1.68 million tribes spent on lobbyists last year.
The Swinomish, Nisqually and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes paid $205,262 combined to Davor Gjurasic, one of the 17 tribal lobbyists that registered online opposition to SB 5212 through the legislative portal. Other lobbyists opposing it include Ehren Flygare, whose Advocates Inc. firm was paid $168,000 by the Puyallup tribe and Dylan Doty, whose Doty & Associates firm received $110,850 from the Muckleshoot tribe.
And though lobbyist Dawn Vyvyan didn’t sign in to the online SB 5212 legislative portal, she was paid $212,940 combined last year by the Puyallup, Sauk-Suiattle and Yakama tribes.
Christophersen invoked her marijuana-industry experience at the Senate hearing, rebutting claims that Maverick overstated the $50 million it says sports gaming in card rooms could generate. A state fiscal note estimates only $3.4 million in annual state sales tax the first three years and $5.1 million a year by 2027.
But Christophersen told senators Maverick’s estimate includes additional taxes card rooms pay municipalities – averaging $27 million annually without sports gaming. She said initial government estimates on marijuana sales taxes were lower than they became.
“We really had no idea what the true market looked like.”
But WIGA head George said tribal casinos, employing more than 23,000 workers, generate state revenue without paying sales tax. Most workers live outside tribal land, and George said there also are few businesses within Native American communities at which to spend casino revenue.
“So while that money quickly goes through the tribal government, it then lands right back into the state,” she said, adding a WIGA-commissioned study estimated tribes generate $722 million in yearly state and local government revenues.
The American Gaming Association estimates that $150 billion is annually bet illegally on sports nationwide, causing some states to hasten legalizing such wagering to offset pandemic shortfalls. Anticipation over how big Washington’s market can grow will likely keep this Maverick-tribes fight going – and political money flowing – regardless of whether SB 5212 survives this legislative round.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Persson said. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.