Mobile wagering was a heated topic Wednesday during a joint state Senate committee meeting over how sports betting will be carried out within Washington’s tribal casinos.

The latest proposals in negotiated compact amendments between the state and 15 tribes would allow mobile bets to be placed beyond casino floors from adjacent hotels, convention spaces, restaurants, entertainment areas and even parking garages. Such betting would be limited by geofencing — setting a virtual perimeter — that allows mobile apps to be activated only within specific boundaries.

During a joint hearing of the Senate’s Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs and Commerce & Gaming committees, some Republican lawmakers argued the envisioned mobile wagering component extends well beyond casino floors and exceeds what was envisioned last year when a law authorizing sports gambling was passed.

“As I recall the legislation from a year ago, we all knew that it would legalize sports books within a gaming facility,” Sen. Mark Schoessler (R-Ritzville) said, adding: “This expansion of mobile within premises and geofence seems to be an expansion or change from the legislation.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima).

“The implication was that this would only be done in the casino,” King said. “And that was the way I interpreted it. But now, with this expansion — to me this is a huge expansion.”

Members of the Washington State Gambling Commission, which carried out negotiations with the tribes, attended the virtual meeting to answer questions from committee members and said they do not believe the law’s intended scope was expanded upon. The commission’s tribal liaison, Julie Lies, said they used a Black’s Law dictionary definition interpreting a facility’s “premises” to include adjacent or adjoining amenities either within the same surrounding walls as a casino, or improved exterior spaces next to it, such as a parking lot or restaurant patio. 

Convenience stores not physically connected to the gaming facility building as well as nearby golf courses were not included in the geofenced areas where mobile wagering could occur, but it could take place in attached shopping areas.

“We did spend a lot of time looking at that language,” Lies said. “It needs to be connecting to that gaming facility … so if the casino is attached to the parking lot but then there was this other building on the other side of the parking lot, the parking lot is adjacent and adjoining, not the other buildings.”

Online gambling is a Class C felony in this state, but its proliferation nationwide in the sports-betting realm has raised demand for some form of mobile wagering here.

The interpretation of how far mobile wagering can physically go — beyond semantical arguments between politicians about what constitutes the “premises” of a gaming facility — will likely fuel further efforts by various gambling entities to have sports wagering extended beyond tribal venues. Nontribal gambling entities such as Bellevue-based Maverick Gaming, supported by King and a growing number of lawmakers, have already pushed unsuccessfully to expand sports wagering to card rooms and racetracks.

For now Washington remains one of three states nationwide where only tribal casinos can offer sports betting to the exclusion of others. Two dozen states have approved sports gambling since the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a federal law banning sports betting outside Nevada and a handful of other places. 

The Tulalip, Suquamish, Kalispel and Snoqualmie tribes were the first to reach tentative sports-wagering agreements with the gambling commission last month. That was followed by the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Swinomish, Colville, Lummi, Shoalwater Bay, Spokane, Cowlitz, Jamestown S’Klallum, Squaxin Island and Stillaguamish tribes last week signing on to the Suquamish tribe’s previously negotiated deal.

Those tribes hope to start offering a sports book through their casinos in time for the fall NFL season, and Wednesday’s hearing marked the next step in getting there. 

The gambling commission will hold public hearings on the proposals June 10 — at which point further debate over mobile wagering limits is expected — followed by a vote. From there, Gov. Jay Inslee and tribal leaders must approve and submit the agreements to the U.S. Department of the Interior for publication in the Federal Register before sports gambling in tribal casinos can occur.  

Mobile wagering is the overwhelming way most sports bets are placed nationwide. But critics contend it’s a gateway to gambling addiction, especially among young adults and minors.

During last year’s run-up to the tribes-only sports-gambling law being passed, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly cited the need to limit mobile sports wagering to within tribal casino confines. They contended that those casinos — with their proven track record of safe, effective gambling — represented the safest way to introduce sports wagering without expanding the state’s overall gambling footprint too quickly.

Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Commission — which promotes the benefits of tribal gaming and vehemently opposes expanding sports gambling beyond those casinos — re-emphasized the safety factor in a statement Wednesday.

“These new compacts will boost our state economy and fund important services for the some of the poorest and historically most underserved communities in Washington,” George said. “These agreements stand as a testament to the strong and enduring partnership Tribes in Washington have built with the State over the last three decades to provide safe, limited and regulated gaming options at tribal casinos.”

But King, who sponsored a since-quashed bill supported by Maverick Gaming to have sports gambling extended to card rooms, on Wednesday suggested the proposed deals were a case of proponents talking out of both sides of their mouth.

“When you looked at nontribal (gaming) the discussion was all, ‘Oh, this would be a great big expansion if we do this. There’s no control over the youth using this,’ ” King said. “All of these things. And the implication was this could only be done (safely) in the casino. But now, to me, this is … a huge expansion of gambling but only on tribal lands.”

Though mobile users must register an account in person beforehand at tribal casinos — where their age and identification are verified — King argued somebody with access to their parents’ preapproved phone could easily place bets from an adjacent hotel or entertainment space.

Commission chair Bud Sizemore admitted during the hearing that the mobile gaming aspect and defining the geofenced premises was “a very difficult area” when it came to bargaining in good faith with tribes. To do that, he said, the legal definition of what a “premises” is had to be respected.

“I don’t believe the gambling commission has expanded gambling or the footprint at all, other than trying to accomplish our responsibilities to really wrap up that definition and make it feasible.” 

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