Sports Betting The Talk Of Washington State

Tuesday’s informational hearing one of a handful of recent discussions on the topic

From Olympia in the west to the Northern Quest tribal casino in the east, legal sports gambling has become a hot topic in Washington State. In the three weeks since the start of the year, tribal interests have met to negotiate their position on sports betting, Maverick Gaming, which owns a host of card rooms, held a call sharing its thoughts on the topic, and lawmakers held an informational hearing.

There are currently two bills in the House — with companion bills in the Senate — that the legislature could take action on during the 2020 session, which opened Jan. 13 and adjourns March 13. The window is short, and there’s some question as to whether or not lawmakers will be nimble enough to turn all of this conversation into a law.

On Tuesday, the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee took a small step forward with an informational working group session in support of SB 6277 and SB 6394.  The meeting featured educational pieces from GeoComply (geofencing), SportRadar (official league data and integrity monitoring) and U.S. Integrity (integrity monitoring). The three panelists invited have shared information about their respective companies across the country, and schooled lawmakers on how geofencing works via smartphone technology and bluetooth technology, what exactly integrity monitoring is and how it works, and how official league data is handled.

Bills may pit commercial interests against tribes

Committee members were engaged and, it seemed, grateful for some clarity on issues that Chairperson Karen Keiser referred to as “murky” and “confusing.” Both of the House bills, HB 2478 and HB 2638 and have been referred to the Commerce and Gaming Committee. Given the short length of this year’s session, it’s likely the bills would have to move out of committee in the next couple of weeks to have a chance to getting to floor votes in either chamber. Hearings are scheduled in both chambers for next week.

Besides the action in the state capital, there’s been plenty of behind-the-scenes work by stakeholders in recent weeks. HB 2478 is a bill backed by Maverick Gaming, that would allow for state-wide mobile and retail sports betting at card rooms, horse racetracks and tribal casinos. It is a more encompassing bill than the other House bill, but both the bill sponsor, Brandon Vick, and tribal representatives say the tribes were not part of the conversation in the drafting of the bill.

“Legal sports betting will give lawmakers the opportunity to create a regulated system that collects tax revenues that should be used to address community needs, supports a strong sustainable workforce, and provides economic opportunity in this growing global market,” Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson said in a press release. “Critically, regulated, legal sports betting has the dual benefit of undermining offshore criminal networks which currently profit from the unregulated and unsafe system.”

The company says its legislation is based on New Jersey law, but notably, Washington State has a large tribal presence and New Jersey has none. Of particular interest in the bill is that it calls for a a 10 percent tax on sports betting gross gaming revenue, but tribal retail and on-site mobile (a mobile bet placed anywhere on tribal lands) would be exempt from this tax — it would apply only to card rooms, horse racetracks and mobile bets placed off-reservation. In addition, the bill sets a minimum age of 18 for sports betting, which would make it one of only a handful of states at 18 versus 21.

Tribal bill has plenty of support

HB 2638 is the bill put forth by Washington’s tribes, and it is more narrow, allowing only for tribal gaming and on-site mobile. The limited mobile piece would allow bettors to use their devices within the confines of the building(s) that house a sportsbook, so within the casino, restaurants, or in the resort area, if applicable. Kevin Zenishek, the Executive Director of Casino Operations for the Northern Quest Casino, which is owned and run by the Kalispel tribe, said his group “took the initiative to push forward” sports betting in Washington.

Zenishek is clear that the tribe he works with, and other Indian gaming interests, aren’t concerned with legalizing sports betting at card rooms, racetracks or anywhere else that isn’t on tribal lands, and he feels fairly confident that a tribal-only bill has enough support to move forward.

Like the commercial bill, HB 2638 does not call for a tax on sports bets made at tribal casinos, but Zenishek says Washington residents would still benefit from legal sports betting through tribal facilities.

“We’re focused on the tribes, that’s our main priority,” Zenishek told Sports Handle. “I think the lawmakers in the state know that the tribes use their revenue wisely and that … through the tribal impact fee, (money) flows through to the communities. This would just bolster the gaming offering that tribes can make and continue to make.”

It appears the tribes don’t have an interest in trying to combine the two bills. The tribal only bills have broad sponsorship in both chambers — 20 sponsors are listed on the House version and 16 are listed on the Senate side. Conversely, Vick filed his bill alone, and remains the only sponsor, while the Senate version has two sponsors.

Like tribal interests across the country, Washington’s tribes aren’t interested in online/mobile gaming.

“There are a few things that are concerning about the commercial bill, especially mobile,” Zenishek said. “There is a law in Washington that” prohibits online gaming. “I just don’t think it’s palatable to lawmakers and citizens.”

The current ban on online gaming would have to lifted for the commercial bill to pass.

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