New California Sports Betting Bill May Have Been Sparked by Failed Tribal Operator Lawsuit

Posted on: June 28, 2019, 03:23h. 

Last updated on: June 28, 2019, 03:23h.

California residents could get to vote on legal sports betting as soon as the 2020 ballot under an amendment presented to the legislature Thursday. But first, Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) will need to unite the state’s powerful tribal operators behind the legislation.

California sports betting
Assemblyman Adam Gray has been a champion of gambling expansion in California but his efforts have been thwarted by recalcitrant tribal operators. Could this time be different? (Image: Courtesy of Adam Gray)

That’s no mean feat. California’s tribal operators have, generally speaking, opposed all recent efforts towards gambling expansion in the state, whether it be online poker or Gray’s sports betting bill of last year.

The tribes mistrust gambling expansion particularly where it might benefit the state’s commercial gambling sector — primarily the card clubs.

Since the amendment will need to be approved by two thirds of the legislature to get on the ballot, it will not pass without full support of the tribes.

There are 61 different tribal casino operators in California, who have collectively contributed billions to state coffers, and so they hold political clout in Sacramento.

Beef with the Card Clubs

But the tribes have become increasingly frustrated by the so-called “California Games” on offer at the card clubs.

These are typically variations of casino games like blackjack and Pai Gow Poker that — like regular poker — include a rotating dealer button and a rake to skirt the ban on house-banked games, on which the tribes hold exclusivity.

But the tribes claim the games are a violation of that exclusivity — and therefore of their compacts with the state — but they have been reluctant to sue in the past, perhaps because they feared they might lose, which could further embolden the card clubs.

Earlier this year, three tribes took the bait and sued the state for its failure to enforce their exclusivity. Last week, that case was dismissed by a federal court, which found the three tribes had no right to exclusivity beyond that which is contained within the state constitution.

Timing is Everything

Could the timing of the amendment be in any way related to a legal setback for the traditional adversaries of gambling expansion? Having failed to gain the blessing of the tribes on sports betting last year, perhaps Gray feels he has a better chance now their hand has been weakened by the court’s decision.

But judging by the response of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, it will be business as usual for the tribes. CNIGA chairman Steve Stallings told The LA Times that state lawmakers should “proceed with caution” when considering sports betting.

In short, CNIGA does not support any expansion of gaming in California, including sports betting until the for-profit, commercial card rooms stop their illegal practices, including constitutionally prohibited banked games,” Stallings said. “A legitimate discussion on sports betting could then proceed as long as tribal exclusivity is maintained.”

Odds are, Californians would approve sports betting in a public referendum. The state, as the most populous in the US and with a strong sports-teams presence, would quickly become the biggest sports betting market in America, and one of the biggest in the world.

But the recent history of gambling expansion efforts in California suggests the amendment is a huge long shot to make it to the finish line.