THERMOPOLIS — Just three weeks ago, members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee of Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources decided it was giving up on an attempt to regulate gambling in the Cowboy State.
Legislative leadership had other ideas, however.
At the behest of the Management Council, state lawmakers revived the prospect of a statewide gaming commission on Monday, bringing back from the dead a proposal that would create a regulatory body to oversee everything from poker games and horse racing to games of skill and sports betting — an issue facing states around the country after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could regulate sports betting last year.
Wyoming lawmakers on Friday nixed a proposed gaming commission despite the fact that more than 400 illegal machines are now operating in the state.
In a motion on Monday, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, moved to form a task force to examine expanding the duties of the state’s Pari-Mutuel Commission — which oversees the state’s horse racing industry — to include the regulation of all forms of legalized gaming statewide.
The concept — first floated at a meeting of the travel committee several weeks ago in Gillette — has been opposed by a number of lobbyists in the skill gaming industry, who feel the shift would be similar to allowing one industry to regulate their competitors. The Pari-Mutuel Commission, however, is a state agency with oversight responsibilities similar to the Wyoming Lottery, tasked only with regulating one type of legalized gambling: horse racing.
The Pari-Mutuel Commission has not yet had substantial talks on absorbing additional responsibilities among its six full-time staff and its several contractors, Executive Director Charles Moore said, adding that most discussions to date have only been internal.
Monday’s solution replaces an amendment to an existing bill regulating bingo and pull tab gaming floated early on in Monday’s meeting — which would have expanded a bill allowing municipalities to regulate the games to instead allow them to take on complete local control of gaming regulation.
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Though local control was not explicitly discussed as part of a proposed gaming commission, it could be defined in the greater legislation that lawmakers and industry groups will develop over the coming weeks. In an interview following Monday’s meeting, Driskill suggested the role of the state’s gaming commission could be similar to that of the state liquor division, which sets uniform rules for the entire state that municipalities can then define for themselves.
“Local control only works when you have an overarching framework to work within,” Driskill said. “When you look at our county commission setup, and our citizen-run towns, they have local control but under the auspices of laws created by the state, with some sideboards. If we’re going to do local control with gambling, there has to be a regulation that’s over the top.”
Possible expansion of gaming?
While the state already has laws regulating gaming in place, the laws are rarely enforced, due to a number of loose definitions in the law that have made enforcement a murky prospect for local governments and members of law enforcement alike.
Under the current law, any wagering game played as part of a “social gathering” is currently permissible, noted Byron Oedekoven, director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. However, law enforcement has a challenging time defining what a bona fide social gathering is.
Though it was suggested lawmakers could simply clean up the language they use to describe the state’s gaming laws, the law, Driskill noted, is only as good as one’s ability to enforce it. With a recent ruling from the state Supreme Court on skill games; the potential for legalized sports betting; and recent concerns about out-of-state, for-profit bingo companies, Driskill said it’s time to move forward with some sort of regulatory framework.
“The question isn’t whether we game or not; it’s what we allow or don’t allow,” he said. “And it’s clear we’re not regulating gaming right now. The courts are regulating for us. This is our chance to choose what we want to allow and what we don’t.”
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“Sitting on our rear end and doing nothing is going to lead to bad results,” Driskill added. “Something needs to happen.”
Some committee members, like committee co-chairman Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, are on the opposite side of the issue and have expressed opposition to a gaming commission. Miller said the evolution of gaming — which has now expanded to people’s cellphones — has gone beyond the scope of state control and that evolving the law to match the pace of change in the industry could, potentially, be overly onerous.
“To start a government bureaucracy, to this, is a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down,” Miller said.
“It can get really big if we’re not careful,” he added.
Potential tribal impacts
For gaming interests in favor of a gaming commission, the prospect of regulated gaming in Wyoming was a welcome one.
The horse racing industry, for example, is subject to strict oversight, required to pay a significant amount of taxes to the state and municipalities every single week. According to numbers provided to the Star-Tribune by a lobbyist for Wyoming Horse Racing LLC, legalized horse racing accounts for roughly $12 million in state and local taxes every single year, including $458,000 in Natrona County alone.
Records reveal the Northern Arapaho Tribe backed a secretive Wyoming lobbying group, but the tribe and their now-former lobbyist dispute who was behind the organization's creation.
Meanwhile, their competitors pay nothing, said the lobbyist, Laurie Urbigkit, putting increasing amounts of pressure on an industry that pays a substantial share of a community’s annual tax revenues.
“There comes a point when a business decision has to be made if you continue to do nothing,” she said.
Of course, by the act of regulating some types of gaming, there is also the possibility that the state, in doing so, will also legalize some types of gaming. This could mean bad news for interests like the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, which, due to a court ruling a number of years ago, have almost unfettered free reign to do whatever type of gaming they want in their reservation casinos.
For the tribes, casino revenues are critical to funding social services and, for the past several months, the Northern Arapaho Tribe has aggressively sought to protect those interests. The tribe even funded secretive lobbying efforts to try to kill statewide gaming regulations, which a former lobbyist for the tribe speculated could lay the groundwork for communities around the state to undermine their profits.
“It definitely would, yeah,” Miller said. “If this was opened up statewide, it would definitely affect their bottom line.”
“The biggest threat (to the tribes) is regulated gambling,” Driskill acknowledged. “They’ve got a protected gig right now. The feds have said they can do whatever they want, and their biggest threat is us. The committee could decide tomorrow to issue casino permits or pass legislation to put slot machines in Riverton that compete directly with them.”