Indian casino slot deal weighed

OLYMPIA – Washington state is considering an agreement with American Indian tribes that will allow thousands more slot-style machines in reservation casinos.

At a March 9 meeting in Olympia, the state Gambling Commission will consider the new agreement with the 28 gaming tribes that would allow the total number of slot machines to increase from about 18,225 now to 27,300.

“The tribes came in and asked for a lot more than what they’ve settled for,” said Tom Fitzsimmons, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s chief of staff.

Since 1998, each tribe has been limited to owning 675 of the lucrative machines. If a tribe with a large casino wanted more, it had to lease extras from other tribes.

That all changed when Gregoire signed a compact that gives the Spokane Tribe the right to own 900 machines, a concession that angered several lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who called it a continued escalation of gambling.

The tribes have long maintained that 675 machines are not enough. With 21 tribes operating 27 casinos in the state, virtually all available machines are in use. Under the proposed deal, every tribe in the state would be authorized to have 975 machines.

That is less than one-third the number of machines the state promised gaming tribes they could eventually operate during compact negotiations in the mid-1990s.

The agreement comes in the face of potential litigation by the gaming tribes, which could accuse the state of negotiating gambling compacts in bad faith by refusing to allow the tribal gambling market to grow, the governor and her adviser said.

Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can operate the same type of gambling that the state or nontribal gambling facilities offer. Although they look and play much like video slot machines, the machines in Washington are considered a very fast lottery game, allowed because the state runs a lottery.

“We don’t limit the number of (state) lottery outlets, the number of lottery ticket sales,” Fitzsimmons said. “And the tribes would say the state doesn’t have a fundamental right to limit our market growth.”

The number of tribal machines has more than tripled since 2001, giving tribal gambling an estimated $1.2 billion of the $1.8 billion gambling industry in the state, according to estimates by state regulators.

Voters have repeatedly rejected ballot measures to expand gambling. Many elected officials, including House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Gregoire herself, say they don’t like gambling or its social costs.

But Gregoire and Fitzsimmons concede the state is largely powerless to do anything except to try to slow gambling’s growth.

Part of negotiations on original compacts with tribes in the mid-1990s included a promise that tribes could eventually operate 3,000 machines each, Fitzsimmons said.

“The promise was made to them years ago that they would be able to grow to a certain level,” Gregoire said in January. “Yes, there probably will be expansion in the future, to be perfectly honest with you.”

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