CHEYENNE — “When it comes to gaming, Wyoming is not the most progressive state.”
This is the pronouncement of the pro-gaming “Play USA” web page, which reports the laws and regulations of all the states.
To buttress its assessment, the authors noted that Wyoming only recently accepted gambling ideas that had been endorsed by other states for decades.
The state lottery only became legal in 2013. Tribal casinos came just a few years before that, but not without a lengthy fight.
In Wyoming until fairly recently, gaming has been essentially illegal, despite the state’s Wild West image.
But that doesn’t mean a lot of gambling has not taken place.
When I lived in Rock Springs in the 1960s, it was common lore that a certain eating place on Pilot Butte Ave. would turn you away if you dared to order a sandwich.
The big business was in the back with betting games the local Italians cherished.
The police looked the other way, knowing that if they shut down the back room games in the “restaurant,” they would just pop up someplace else in the town.
In recent years, efforts by the Legislature to provide some regulation over the games, particularly charitable bingo, have gotten nowhere.
In the last session a bill to regulate bingo games got out of committee but died in the House for lack of interest and time.
But the issue has been kept alive through an interim study of a gaming commission by the Joint Appropriations Committee.
It is the committee’s No. 2 priority. which is a good sign it might develop into a worthwhile bill.
Wyoming is the only state in the nation that has no oversight of charitable gambling, according to testimony at the committee’s June meeting in Cheyenne.
Meanwhile there are serious loopholes in the current laws, as well as considerable confusion about the legality of new gambling devices, including so-called “skill” games.
There also is the potential for revenue which is an attraction given the state’s problem in finding enough money for the public schools.
Testifying in favor of a state gaming commission was Darren Webb of Cheyenne, head of C and E Bingo Supply, a vendor for the wholesale distribution of pulls-tabs in Cheyenne and Colorado.
“What we have in Wyoming is free range,” Webb said.
In Colorado, Webb said, he pays $900 a year for a license in addition to a .03 percent excise tax on profits paid quarterly.
Vendors from South Dakota and Nebraska are also distributing their products here without the requirement for a license.
Wyoming, he said, could have a state gaming commission that is self-funded through an excise tax like Colorado’s.
Attorney General Peter Michael said that while enforcement of the state’s gambling law is a local responsibility, local law officers do ask his office for help in deciding whether a gaming machine is legal or not.
“It’s a close question when it comes to machines,” Michael said.
Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the state cannot rely on local law enforcement any more to determine the legality of gaming devices under current laws and with the modernization of the machines.
Oedekoven said his group welcomes the discussion of a state gaming commission, which presumably would have that expertise.
The gambling issue has been kicking around for a long time.
In 2006 the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled unanimously that electronic bingo games were illegal.
That decision prompted an editorial in the Casper Star-Tribune, calling on the Legislature to create a state gaming commission.
The editorial first cited a current case in Casper where a for-profit organization that ran the charitable bingo games was paid 11 times more than the amount that went to charity.
“The state gaming commission will be able to monitor bingo operations to make sure that the operations are on the up-and-up. It will shut down operations seeking to take advantage of perceived loopholes in state laws. It can also make certain that nonprofit groups—the reason the Legislature approved bingo in the first place—get a fair share,” the editorial said.
That was 12 years ago.