Will Tribes Lose Their Monopoly on Slot Machines?

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Commercial card rooms, sometimes called nontribal casinos, have long sought to win the right to install slot machines, roulette wheels and other gambling devices to attract more customers and boost profits. No wonder. Washington’s 28 tribal casinos, which currently have exclusive right to use the gambling machines, netted $2 billion last year, compared to $225 million taken in by the 66 nontribal card rooms.

As the Legislature struggles to close a projected $2 billion revenue shortfall for the 2011–2013 biennium, card rooms argue that they could provide a solution. They say if they were allowed to install about 7,500 slot machines, they could provide the state with more than $140 million in additional tax revenue for the current biennium and as much as $400 million in the next biennium.

As sovereign, self-governing nations, Indian tribes in Washington are not obligated to pay either federal or state taxes. By contrast, card rooms must pay an annual licensing fee of $6,944, plus $1,732 per table, and also pay local taxes on their revenues.

Republicans are supportive of the card room proposal and have proposed a Gaming Fairness and Equity Act that would substantially expand gambling. The governor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature continue to say no to the idea.

The card rooms point to friendly ties between the tribes and Democrats. Tribes, for example, have contributed $1 million to the state Democratic Party since 2004, according to The Seattle Times. Tribes, meanwhile, point to the overwhelming defeat of a 2004 initiative as evidence the public is against expanding gambling.

Governor Chris Gregoire is trying to sidestep the issue altogether. As part of her Reform Government agenda, she suggests privatizing the state lottery, a far more extensive form of gambling. Both card rooms and tribes would likely be interested in getting a chunk of that lucrative business.

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