Washington State Bill Would Authorize Tribal Online Sports Betting in Only US Jurisdiction That Criminalizes Players

A bill introduced in the Washington State legislature this week would legalize sports betting –- including online sports betting — at the state’s 30-odd tribal casinos.

A bill sponsored by Majority Caucus Chair Eric Pettigrew and seven other Washington State lawmakers would authorize tribal sports betting and could open a conversation about commercial gambling expansion. (Image: Twitter)

Majority Caucus Chair Eric Pettigrew’s (D-37) bill is not proposing to authorize full-scale online sports betting — gamblers would need to be physically present within a casino facility to participate — but if successful, it would represent a dramatic pivot for the only state in America whose residents are currently committing a crime by gambling online.

In 2006, Washington lawmakers passed an amendment that rendered anyone who “knowingly transmits or receives gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphore, the Internet, a telecommunications transmission system, or similar means” guilty of a Class C felony.

Toothless Law

That means that — theoretically at least — the act of gambling online could land you a prison sentence of up to five years and a $10,000 fine — although no one has ever been prosecuted for doing so, which makes you wonder why they bothered passing such a toothless amendment at all.

The bill, HB1975, will not liberate Washington residents from their theoretical liability for prosecution for gambling online, but it will establish an exception to the rule for tribal casinos and their customers.

It states: “The legislature authorizes the transmission of gambling information over the internet for any sports wagering… provided that a wager may be placed and accepted only while the customer placing the wager is physically present on the premises of the gaming facility of the Indian tribe or tribal entity.”

More to This Than Meets the Eye?

But Chris Stearns of the Washington State Gambling Commission believes that, while the bill may appear limited in scope, there’s more going on beneath the surface.

“The bill doesn’t say very much, but the way federal Indian gaming law works is, just as long as the state permits something it opens the door for the tribes to operate based on what they negotiate.

“So, it may look limited, but it just opens the door to what the tribes can negotiate with the governor.”

In short, legalized sports betting at Washington’s numerous tribal casinos will create an environment where discussion about the expansion of commercial online sports betting can take place.

Despite its traditional resistance to commercial casino gaming — both land-based and online — tribal casinos have been a winner for Washington State. It has the fourth highest number of Native American casinos in the US — after Oklahoma, California, and Minnesota — which contribute hundreds of millions each year to state coffers.

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