Washington State Should Legalize Gambling

The Supreme court's recent ruling on sports betting begs the question: Is it time to embrace gambling?

This article appears in print in the August 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Americans will roll the dice, flip the cards, spin the wheel, lay down their bets and take a flier on just about anything. E pluribus unum? Forget that. The national motto ought to be whatever the Latin equivalent is of “wanna bet?” 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling clearing the way for states to dive into sports betting had a feeling of inevitability about it, a legal sanctioning of what millions of people were doing anyway. The history of the political debate about legalized gambling has routinely played out this way.

Washington has no shortage of outlets for those who enjoy a bit of wagering, from horse tracks to casinos to the state’s own lottery. But it may find itself trailing in the race to authorize — and tap tax revenue from — legalized sports wagering. Other states are poised to go; Oregon was one of a handful of states grandfathered in under the act the Supremes struck down.

The Washington State Gambling Commission notes that sports betting is still prohibited in Washington under state law, and it’ll take an act of the Legislature to undo that. That proscription threatens to put the state even farther behind its competitors and to miss out on carving out its share of what is already going on within its border anyway. (A news release on the commission’s website announces an investigation into an illegal Wenatchee-area sports-betting ring taking action on Mexican soccer games.)

But all is not lost. Washington fancies itself a state of innovators and risk takers, so here’s a modest proposal for moving from the ranks of the also-rans to those of the front-runners: Open the state to betting on everything. Let people bet on the outcomes of any game they can find a bookie for — even Mexican soccer games.

But why limit ourselves? Pundits are always handicapping political campaigns and assigning probabilities of candidates getting elected. Let’s turn those predictions into wagers with actual cash at stake. What’s the morning line on Trump’s re-election? Whom do you like for the Democratic nomination in 2020? Get your money down now.

Washington could even set up prop bets, the way it’s possible to bet on which team scores first in the Super Bowl. Will Seattle’s mayor last more than one term? Will this state ever elect a Republican governor? The betting window is open.

Let’s not stop there. The Oscars are a natural opportunity — think of the trifectas, perfectas and other exotic wagers you can construct from betting on multiple categories. Whom do you like for the Nobel for literature? For Miss America?

Played right, betting on business can be a business unto itself. Yes, the stock, bond and options markets are really just bets on business and economics under the guise of “investing,” but that’s such an untidy approach. Give the gambling public a straightforward proposition, like “Where will Amazon put HQ2?” or “Where will Boeing build the 797?” and see if you don’t spark some interest.

The beauty of this for the state is that it doesn’t have to run the games itself, but just sit back and collect its winnings. This shouldn’t be hard to make happen. The closest to a sure thing in life is the allure of a new revenue source for government.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. Reach him at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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