Wyoming has a long and storied history with gaming, dating back to the days when cowboys gathered in bunkhouses for an old-fashioned game of Western poker. In 1868 the first territorial laws were passed and gambling became heavily regulated. Through the years, Wyoming outlawed gambling altogether and then later allowed only what was in statute. Bingo and pull tabs have long been legal under Wyoming statutes, however, the face of gaming in Wyoming has drastically changed in recent years, bringing a plethora of issues to the forefront.
I have been involved with the debate on gaming since I entered the Wyoming Legislature as a newly minted State Senator nine years ago. In that time, I have watched Wyoming implement a lottery, develop historic horse racing including slot-like machines and live horse racing and wagering. Traditional card games moved from backrooms and private residences to bars and other establishments, and most recently “skill games” and “gray and black” games arrived on the scene. With the advent of electronics, these new games found a loophole in the existing gaming laws. Sports betting is now on the horizon. These industries are handling an astonishing amount of revenue — over an estimated one billion dollars annually. Gaming in Wyoming is no longer limited to small wagering backyard games; large-scale gambling operations are the new norm. Individual bingo parlors throughout the state are making millions a year, “skill,” “gray” and “black games” are taking in even more — all without any oversight or supervision. Whether you are anti-gaming, pro-gaming or a libertarian that hates regulation, the time has come for Wyoming to create a gaming commission. Regulation of these growing industries is necessary to regulate what the people of Wyoming want for their individual communities and the state.
Today, we have the worst of both worlds — rampant expansion of gaming of all types with no rules or regulations whatsoever. Unfortunately, even regulated gaming activities are not being enforced. Bingo halls are operating with no oversight to ensure that the proceeds go to charities as required by law; a blind eye is turned to illegal gaming machines and the expansion of illegal gaming.
The only viable solution is regulation.
Wyoming currently has no consistency with regard to gaming regulation. What is legal in one county might be grounds for felony charges in the county next door. Additionally, without regulation, there is no guarantee that the gaming that is occurring is being done in an ethical and fair manner. For example, there is no guarantee of what machines are paying out (other than historic horse machines); there is no guarantee that the bingo game isn’t rigged or that the pull tab you are playing didn’t have the winning tabs pulled before they were bought by you. In the case of bingo games, there is no guarantee that the money taken in by the bingo parlor is given to charity as required by law.
Recently, an individual in Newcastle won nearly $20,000.00 on a “non-historic” gaming machine. When the bettor attempted to collect the winnings the response was that the machine “malfunctioned” and there would be no payout. These type machines fall under a “gray” area in Wyoming law, which states clearly that gambling debts cannot be collected under Wyoming law. The same is true for cheating in card games and other non-legal gaming. With no law or regulation in place, the individual has no recourse to collect and the machine owner is not required to honor the win. It is clear we will see much more of this in the future without regulation.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee was tasked with creating a bill to regulate gaming and close the loophole that has allowed unregulated gaming to occur. The bill essentially legalizes the gaming that is already occurring throughout the state, making laws consistent from county to county and ensuring games are conducted in an ethical and honest manner.
Most importantly, it provided the public a commission to turn to if they see problems or have been cheated — something that isn’t available right now. This bill does not expand gambling, nor does it shrink what is already in place. In fact, it puts the power to do so in the hands of citizens and their local governments. There is immense pressure from all sides on this issue. One thing is clear — absent of regulation, you are guaranteed to see an exponential growth of gaming on all fronts. Left unchecked, we will see more unscrupulous operations.
Senator Ogden Driskill has represented the 1st District since 2011 and serves as vice president of the Wyoming Senate.
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