Washington Sports Betting Bill Becomes Law Amid Game Drought, Legal Challenge Looms

Posted on: March 26, 2020, 05:36h. 

Last updated on: March 26, 2020, 06:27h.

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed into law a controversial bill that legalizes sports betting at tribal casinos.

Washington sports betting
Gov. Jay Inslee put pen to paper Wednesday, but the state’s commercial gaming industry claims the tribal-only Washington sports betting is unconstitutional. (Image: PBS)

In doing so, Washington became the first state this year to authorize wagering on sporting events. But it does so at a time when there are precious few sporting events to wager on.

Betting companies are beginning to feel the pinch because of the coronavirus crisis. With very little indication of when the sporting calendar will return to normal, the state’s 29 tribal casinos will be in little hurry to plow money into launching sports books.

This is in stark contrast to states that passed sports betting bills in 2018 and 2019, where, in many cases, there was a rush to get the market running in time for the NFL season or March Madness.

Casinos Cut Down by Virus

In the very early days of the US coronavirus outbreak, Washington was the worst-hit state, and tribal casinos are currently shuttered.

“Tribal communities and governments are currently dealing with the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, with many tribal governments focusing on essential services and shutting down business activities such as casinos,” said Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association (WIGA).

As we recover from this crisis, the addition of this amenity will help tribal governments fund the essential services their members will need to get back up on their feet,” Kaldor added.

She praised the governor for “joining bipartisan majorities in the legislature to pass this careful and thoughtful approach to sports betting.”

Felony Betting

When the tribes eventually launch, gamblers will be able to place bets at casino sports books, as well as at self-service betting kiosks within the casinos. Meanwhile, geofenced mobile apps are available provided the user is on the premises.

Outside of tribal lands, offering sports betting in Washington remains a felony, as does the simple act of placing a bet online. The state is unique in America in that its gambling laws target not only illegal online operators, but their customers, too.

Not everyone is enamored of this bill and the possibility remains that it could be struck down in the courts before the tribes start taking bets.

Maverick Lawsuit Coming

The controversy arises because the bill passed the legislature with an emergency clause tagged on the end that allowed it to become law the moment Gov. Inslee’s pen hit paper, foregoing the customary public referendum for gambling expansion legislation.

Anticipating that sports betting would become legal in Washington, Nevada-based Maverick Gaming bought 19 card rooms in the state since the US Supreme Court shot down federal prohibition.

Maverick CEO Eric Persson is a Washington native and member of the Shoalwater Bay tribe. But he says he is prepared to spend “$20 (million) to $30 million” challenging the tribes’ “tax-free monopoly,” which he says is unconstitutional.

Persson argues the emergency clause should not have been allowed to stand because the situation did not qualify as an emergency. He claims it was only added because the bill’s sponsors realized they lacked the requisite 60 percent support from voters for the tribal-only bill to succeed at a referendum.