By The Herald Editorial Board
It’s a safe bet that the debates and questions around gambling in Washington state will see increased interest in coming months, in particular those between the state’s tribal casinos and the operators of privately operated cardrooms.
And, the financial stakes are only going higher. Consider the state’s own player in the game, the Washington Lottery, which surpassed $1 billion in sales for the recently ended fiscal year for the first time in its 40-year-history.
For the previous fiscal year, the lottery’s annual financial report shows, the $909 million spent at lottery kiosks and convenience stores paid out $574 million in prizes (63 percent); provided $176.5 million (19 percent) for college scholarships, early learning support and other education programs and $33.6 million (less than 4 percent) to the state’s general fund, with the balance going to economic development, administration, retail commissions and a $430,000 nod — about 500ths of 1 percent — to address efforts to fight problem gambling.
It’s no surprise, then, that a year-long battle before the state’s five-member Gambling Commission pitted a major operator of cardrooms — Maverick Gaming — against the state’s tribal casinos. Last week, the commission voted 3-2 to allow cardrooms to increase their maximum bet to $400, up from the current $300 limit that has been in place since 2009, the Washington State Standard reported Monday.
Maverick, which owns and operates 23 cardrooms in Washington state — including two in Everett, two in Mountlake Terrace and one in Bothell — initially petitioned the commission to increase the wager limit, bringing it more in line with the limits at tribal casinos, which operate under a pact between the tribes and the state.
Maverick, defending the request, said the increase is necessary to allow it to better compete with the tribal casinos.
The tribes, represented by the Kalispel Tribe and the Washington Indian Gaming Association before the commission, argued against the increase, calling it a violation of the state law that legalized house-banked cardrooms. Under language that has not changed since the law’s passage, the tribes stressed that “social card games” at cardrooms were allowed only as a “commercial stimulant” to the operations’ primary business of selling food and drinks.
Noting Maverick’s growth, including purchases of smaller independent cardrooms, the Indian gaming association, in an earlier letter to the commission, called the request “a far cry from the Legislature’s original intent.”
The tribes’ argument didn’t carry the day, but was noted by the two commissioners who voted against the wager increase.
The issue however, isn’t whether a level playing field is necessary between the interests of the state’s tribes and nontribal casino operators; rather it’s what the Legislature intended when it first legalized the cardrooms.
The issues of tribal gaming and the tribes’ accord with the state — established under tribal sovereignty — are separate from the state’s regulation of nontribal cardrooms and casinos.
This February, a federal court in Washington state rejected a lawsuit by Maverick that challenged amendments to the state’s pact with tribes regarding sports betting at tribal casinos, which had been authorized by the Legislature in 2020, basing the ruling on tribal sovereignty.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, defending the state in the lawsuit, said in a release following the suit’s dismissal, that Maverick’s challenge was a threat to tribes’ rights to self-determination and “could have had consequences beyond casino gaming by undermining long-established principles of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”
Yet the lawsuit’s failure won’t end the question regarding sports betting at nontribal casinos. Legislation was filed this year that would have allowed cardrooms and nontribal casinos to run sports betting pools. Bills in the Senate and House were referred to committees but did not advance.
State lawmakers next year may again consider similar legislation. They also should consider a review of what was intended in regulating the wagering and operations of nontribal cardrooms and casinos and whether they were meant to provide only “social card games” alongside a burger, fries and a beer or a more favorable economic boost to a private gaming operator.
But those considerations stand apart from the agreements that the state has negotiated with the tribes of Washington state in respect of their tribal sovereignty. The state need not look to level the field between tribal and nontribal casinos.
Simply put, the state has more authority to set rules for nontribal businesses than it has for those of sovereign nations.
If that’s not necessarily a fair deal, it’s a just one.