In a libertarian-leaning state, it’s no surprise that lawmakers would be flirting with the idea of regulating gambling. After all, Wyoming already allows limited forms of gambling including horse racing and the lottery. The tribes on the Wind River Reservation – the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone – also operate casinos.
But it’s for exactly that reason that lawmakers should proceed with caution as they examine prospects for statewide gambling regulations. The tribes’ casinos are successful in part because gambling is only legalized in certain places in Wyoming, and if our Legislature allows it statewide, the tribes’ businesses will surely suffer. Given that the economic prospects on the reservation are already limited, lawmakers could cause a problem without solving one.
That’s not to say the issue shouldn’t be examined. The situation in Wyoming now is haphazard and confusing. Horse racing, off-track betting and the lottery are legal. And there is a broad gray area where unregulated gaming machines operate at bars and truck stops due to the existing regulatory environment and poor enforcement.
The bill now being considered by lawmakers would create a statewide gaming commission. The commission would be responsible for regulating gambling in any county that chooses to legalize it. Counties would have to opt into gambling – meaning voters in each would have the final say.
That all might sound good. Yes, gambling is a vice, but it’s also a choice that adults can make for themselves, a proponent might argue.
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We might be more sympathetic to that line of thinking if a gambling industry was starting from scratch in Wyoming. But that’s not the case.
Instead, there are already a handful of existing gambling ventures in Wyoming, and to change the rules of the game now would inevitably hurt them. For example, the Northern Arapaho’s casino employs roughly 500 people, making it Fremont County’s largest employer. Its owners say the casino would lose $14 million annually if gambling became legalized around the state. Taken at face value it’s not hard to understand why. If small casinos existed in Casper, Rock Springs and elsewhere, it’s less likely that people would travel to Riverton – especially in the winter.
Some might argue that lawmakers would be picking losers and winners if they leave things as they are. But it’s worth asking – what would happen to the residents of Fremont County – one of the poorest counties in Wyoming – if its largest employer must make major cuts or goes belly up altogether?
It’s fair to criticize how the casino tried to lobby lawmakers via an anonymous group to kill the gambling regulations. (Tribal leaders blame a lobbyist for that effort, though there is ample evidence showing they were aware of what was going on.) But that decision doesn’t justify expanding gambling to all corners of the state.
Besides, if lawmakers truly believe in keeping government small, growing gambling is a bad idea. That would inevitably require more government workers to regulate the industry.
At this juncture, lawmakers should examine how to address the gray area gambling that already exists in a quasi-legal setting. But they should be cautious before fully embracing an expansion of these activities across the state. There are likely a host of unintended consequences that could cause more problems than the ones that exist now.