Count Democratic state Reps. Kathy Haigh of Shelton and Chris Reykdal of Tumwater among early supporters of the private-sector gambling industry's video slot machines bill today.
Both lawmakers are pushing to raise state revenues, and both signed on as co-sponsors of House Bill 2044. The bill was formally introduced today by Republican Reps. David Taylor of Moxee and Charles Ross of Naches. Democratic Reps. Steve Kirby of Tacoma and Dave Upthegrove of Normandy Park also signed on as did three other Republicans.
Tribes can be expected to fight the proposal because it could horn in on their market, which to date has been a monopoly, as critics put it. And a majority of lawmakers has never coalesced behind the concept.
Tribes added the lucrative e-slot machines, which are based on a scratch-ticket format used by the state Lottery Commission, a little over a decade ago and their gross revenues from all gaming have mushroomed to about $1.7 billion a year.
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And that has caused jealousy on the part of card rooms, whose trade group, the Recreational Gaming Association, pushed more expansive tribal-style slot machine proposals in the past and is behind this proposal (see this post of a few weeks ago).
But this proposal, which is from the RGA, limits the video slot machines to about 65 existing house-banked card rooms.Those qualifying must already be operating with at least five card games before Aug. 1 or after that date have been operating for five years. [Update clarifies which mini-casinos could qualify.]
Ross and Taylor said in this press release they expect to deliver about $290 million to the state coffers. Their "Gaming Fairness and Equity Act" would direct 50 percent to K-12 public schools, 30 percent "to fund services for the most vulnerable" and 20 percent for public safety.
According to Ross and Taylor's press release:
"Tribal casinos were first built in rural areas, but now they are expanding to urban areas – providing unfair competition to private businesses," said Taylor, R-Moxee. "We have to ask ourselves – do we want more mega-casinos or do we want to allow established and reputable house-banked card rooms to compete for the same market share?"
In this season of budget cuts, that sounds like a more winnable combination that Tim Eyman's initiative that 60 percent of voters rejected in 2004. Eyman's measure would have let thousands of machines spread over hundreds of taverns, restaurants and bars. Gov. Chris Gregoire is no fan of expanded gambling but has left the door ajar on this issue – if legislators show interest.
"We are goring vital programs. So if everything is on the table, then let us have a good debate whether an expansion of gaming is a viable option for us," Rep. Reykdal, a freshman in the 22nd district, said today. "It's not inappropriate to have the equity argument in terms of our private owned businesses and gaming opportunities.''
Reykdal would not go so far as Ross or Taylor in asserting that allowing slots at largely rural tribal casinos, but not at urban card rooms, is unfair. But he said the state's financial situation is so dire he thinks it is time to ask if expanded gambling “s is a better idea than not doing it.''
"I think it's putting one more tool on the table," Reykdal said "There is still very little conversation about revenue (and limiting tax breaks for special interests). This will certainly raise some eyebrows and at least ignite a new conversation."
I put in a call to Haigh, whose 35th district includes a casino run by the Squaxin Island tribe, but haven't heard back yet. I don't believe there are private card rooms in Mason County that would be allowed to add slots under the proposal.
The Nisqually tribes operates a casino in the 20th district that sweeps over south Thurston county. It could face competition from the nontribal card room at Hawks Prairie in Lacey, under the bill.
1st UPDATE on 5 p.m. post: The right-of-center Washington Policy Center sounded off today about the so-called gaming equity bill and related measures that deal with tribal revenues.
2nd UPDATE: Dolores Chiechi, executive director of the RGA, said that with a bill now on the table, more lawmakers will be willing to discuss the option.