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Wyoming to take look at regulated gambling in 2020 legislative session
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Wyoming to take look at regulated gambling in 2020 legislative session

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A patron plays the slot machines in October 2016 at the Shoshone Rose casino. Lawmakers are weighing whether to regulate gambling in Wyoming.

After months of work at the committee level — and a near defeat of the bill over the summer — the Wyoming Legislature will be taking on a bill to impose regulated gambling in Wyoming this legislative session.

Passed out of committee on Thursday by an 11-2 margin, the bill would essentially expand the state’s 10-year-old Pari-Mutuel Commission, which oversees legalized horse racing in Wyoming, to regulate all for-profit gambling in Wyoming.

Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, and Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, were the lone dissenting votes.

Carried by the Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources, legislation to create a formalized Gaming Commission in Wyoming has been a challenging prospect since the idea was first floated last spring, with several versions of the bill being poked and prodded over the past year.

For lawmakers, the concept was simple: Gambling is on the rise in a number of communities around the state and, with no means to regulate it, there was no way to control its spread or to enforce the law around legal or illegal games. And, with no regulatory infrastructure in place, communities had no means to benefit from them.

Under the proposed legislation, however, the state as well as municipalities whose voters choose to have legalized gambling could now earn revenues off of those games. Under the proposed legislation, nearly 4 percent of all revenues would go to the state to cover the overhead from enforcing the regulations, while an additional 13.5 percent would go to the municipalities themselves, leaving a 19.5 percent share for the establishments that contain the games.

The law would specifically exclude nonprofit organizations — like the Boy Scouts or the National Rifle Association — that rely on games like bingo to raise money for their organizations. However, under the proposed bill, those organizations would still have to report their proceeds to the state.

While the bill was supported by groups from law enforcement to representatives for the gaming companies themselves, others had concerns. Representatives from the Northern Arapaho tribe, which previously led efforts to oppose regulated gambling in Wyoming, said they supported the bill, adding that it could help stem the spread of unregulated gambling across the state and build consumer confidence in gambling as a whole.

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However, the language of the bill remains overly broad, they said, with a number of provisions that, if unaddressed, could create a slippery slope to the unmitigated spread of other types of gambling.

“We’ve been doing it for well over 20 years, and there’s a lot that goes into that,” Northern Arapaho Business Council member Stephen Fast Horse said. “We see this bill as a start and something that will need improvement. If you’re willing, we’re happy to have a conversation with you all to learn about all the aspects of regulation and get the meat of what it takes to build a gaming commission.”

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Others, like the state Liquor Association’s lobbyist Mike Moser and Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr, opposed the opt-in provisions of the bill that would take place during the 2020 general elections later this year, saying that communities should instead be able to opt out of legalized gambling, citing a significant number of businesses they represent that have already made substantial investments into their gaming operations.

“We’re afraid that as of November — if this bill passes — a number of organizations that rely on this will be shut out of those revenues,” Moser said.

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While a number of amendments were proposed to potentially address some of the concerns with the bill — including the tax amounts, the op-in requirements and the definition of “skill games,” among others — the committee’s chairman, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, noted that the bill had already received a significant amount of attention in the interim session and that any new amendments could be addressed in floor debates during the session itself, which begins Monday.

This ambiguity, former state Sen. Bruce Burns said in public testimony on the bill Thursday, could play to the bill’s advantage, saying that too much specificity in the bill’s language could gain it more opposition than support.

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“The fewer people in your body you can offend, the better,” he said.

For those opposed to the spirit of the bill, Burns had an answer as well.

“This commission is not going to be about the expansion of gaming,” Burns said. “If anything, it’s going to get a handle on it.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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