Commentary: Progress of sports gambling bill is exciting but leaves many questions on the table for the state

Data pix.

We start tonight with this picture of a brick wall, which is normally what I want to bang my head against when it comes to anything involving the Washington State Legislature.

Which is all the more shocking that there was actually some movement this week in regards to some form of legalizing sports betting in Washington.

On Thursday night, the State House overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow sports gambling inside tribal casinos by a vote of 83 to 14. It now moves to the State Senate, where a vote could take place in the next month and reach Governor Jay Inslee’s desk by this spring. It would allow betting on college and pro sports, including Olympic events and e-sports, but would prohibit gambling on games involving any schools from our state.

And it would again restrict betting to inside tribal casinos only, which means online betting, including fantasy-based sites like Draft Kings and FanDuel would still be prohibited by law.

Which leaves me with so many questions.

But first, some context: There are currently 20 states that have legalized some form of sports betting, and according to ActionNetwork.com, there are 17 more states that are projected to legalize it in the next two years. That’s 37 of 50 states – not including Washington – that seem to be on board. This is essentially a bus that has left the station and is not coming back!

So to lawmakers in Washington, this is an issue that won’t go away even if they keep ignoring it. Which likely explains why there’s been this surprising bi-partisan push to move forward with it so quickly.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m excited that something – anything – could actually happen so soon!

But one of my biggest arguments in favor of sports betting in the past has been that the state could use tax revenue to fund priorities like education, infrastructure or affordable housing. Under this bill, none of that money is actually going into the state’s hands. Let me repeat: None of that money is going to the state itself, aside from about five million dollars from the tribes to the Washington State Gambling Commission to set up a regulatory body to oversee it all.

Now, it’s not to say that our local tribes don’t generate state and tax revenue – “more than $722 million” according to a chairman from the Suquamish Tribe earlier today. And it’s not to say that they don’t invest millions of dollars toward housing, healthcare and education - not to mention other charities and non-profits. But the fact that the state is basically handing tribal casinos the key to the “sports gambling castle” so-to-speak is, in my opinion, a little short-sighted.

Listen, I get it: Washington is incredibly conservative when it comes to gaming. Lawmakers would rather have tribal casinos that have run gambling establishments for decades pay the $5 million or so for a regulatory body than having the state take on that responsibility itself.

But here is a chart from legalsportsreport.com listing the taxes collected or the state share of proceeds from sports gambling by these states since June 2018. Even though East Coast states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware are thriving, with so many states joining the mix including Oregon to the south, and our proximity to Nevada, there’s no guarantee of a significant revenue generator for Washington.

Then again, Oregonians do have a choice: They can wager statewide on a mobile app that’s controlled by Oregon’s Lottery OR in-person at the one tribal casino that’s opened a sportsbook so far. That won’t be the case here.

It is also very telling that an emergency amendment with this sports betting bill blocked this issue from being subjected to a statewide referendum. Frankly, I don’t know if it would garner enough support to pass by a vote of Washingtonians, but it’s clear the state’s lawmakers don’t want to go down that road.

Again, from my standpoint, this is a step forward. I’m excited that by next football season, people could be able to put money on the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl without having to fly to Vegas. Essentially, beggars can’t be choosers. I never thought anything could happen so soon.

But it doesn’t mean it’s the absolute best path to get there. And in my view, the state is failing to see the forest through the trees. For whatever reason – and I’ll let you make the ultimate call why - it’s refusing to take a risk that could be a future windfall.

Sure, nothing is ever guaranteed. But in this situation, in layman's terms: It’s simply a bet this state is not willing to make.

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