Politics & Government

Expansion of sports gambling at Indian casinos moves forward in Legislature

By a large margin, the state House of Representatives on Thursday night approved a bill to allow legal sports gambling, but only at tribal casinos.

An expansion of gambling requires at least a three-fifths majority vote in each chamber. The House easily cleared that bar, approving HB 2638 by a 83-14 vote. The measure moves to a Senate committee. The Senate has a companion bill that it could send to the House, giving lawmakers two options to get a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

If the Senate is in line with the House, Washington would become the 22nd state to provide legal sports gambling. People are wagering on sports in 14 states, including Oregon. Seven other states have enacted laws, but sports gambling has not begun yet, according to the American Gaming Association.

The bill would authorize the state to negotiate compacts with the tribes on the details of how sports gambling would be operated at Las Vegas-style sports books. Gambling would be allowed on pro and college sports, except for games involving Washington public and private universities.

Leaders of several Indian tribes have stressed that they support sports gambling if it’s limited to their casinos. They cited their track record of offering gambling under federal and state regulation, and how they’ve used the revenue to offer many services to their people, including paying for college tuition and helping elders with health care.

“We have 20 years of working with these tribes on gaming issues and I look forward to hundreds more...” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds.

Las Vegas-based Maverick Gaming, which owns several house-banked card rooms in Washington, has urged legislators to give it a piece of the action, but the bill leaves the firm in the cold.

State Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, voted no.

“We haven’t been able to debate in committee why sports betting does not belong in a card room. ... We haven’t been able to debate why sports betting doesn’t belong in a racetrack. We haven’t been able to debate why sports betting doesn’t belong online. What we had was this bill that was very clear and very concise and we either had to give it an up or down vote,” he said.

The House attached an emergency clause to the legislation, which would make the law take effect immediately. Maverick spokesman Aaron Pickus said the move was intended to block a referendum. He provided a letter from Seattle attorney Philip Talmadge, a former state senator and Supreme Court justice, about HB 2638 and its companion bill, SB 6394.

“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. He disclosed that Maverick was paying him for the legal opinion, but he has “no other relationship with that firm or the bill’s opponents.”

If the Legislature approves a tribal-only bill and Inslee signs it into law, Maverick and its allies would support putting a referendum on the ballot, Pickus said.

Sports wagering is legal in Washington only in a very narrow fashion. Businesses and individuals can charge up to $1 per square on 100-square sports pool boards for a single sports game, such as the Super Bowl. The number of people who bet using sports boards is extremely low, state officials say.

The Washington State Gambling Commission has acknowledged that money from Washington, like all states, flows into the black market in illegal sports gambling, with the biggest chunk of it appearing to be online gambling on sites controlled by off-shore entities that state regulators have problems reaching.

Fantasy sports, bracket pools such as the NCAA basketball tournament, and office sports pools are illegal in Washington.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports gambling in nearly all 50 states.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.