Tribal gambling compacts look OK

Washington’s treaty tribes would find it easier to add electronic slot machines as their enterprises gradually expand under terms of new compacts negotiated by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration. The state Gambling Commission is expected to approve the compact amendments for 27 of 29 tribes on Friday.

Compacts are negotiated between sovereign tribes and the Governor’s Office under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed by Congress in 1988 to boost economic development on tribal lands. Tribes are entitled to use the specially designed slots, which are an electronic version of scratch tickets, because federal courts have equated tribal-style slots to state-run Lottery games.

Earlier state compacts set long-term limits of 90,000 machines statewide, but only 28,000 were allocated statewide under compacts reached in 2007. The new agreements boost that 28,000-machine cap by about 1,350 immediately. Another 1,350 would be available if the Cowlitz tribe is able to operate a casino project still caught in a court fight.

Several South Sound tribes are affected, including the Squaxin Island, Nisqually and Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis; two tribes — the Puyallup and Muckleshoot — did not join negotiations but may benefit. A key piece of the proposals lets tribes incrementally add the e-slot machines to their businesses over time as they need them, without coming back to the state. Under the pending compacts, tribes as a group gain access to another 1,350 machines whenever the pool of slot machines available for all tribes shrinks to just 500, subject to verification by the state.

In the past, tribes needed to come to the Gambling Commission for approval of compacts negotiated with the governor each time machines were added. The new arrangement streamlines that process. A safety valve is that the state or tribes are free to open new negotiations at any point one side or the other wants to.

Amy Hunter, deputy director of the Gambling Commission, expects that changes in gaming-industry technology may bring tribes back to the table to seek authorization of new variations of games sooner than later.

The state contends new compacts make billing of tribes for regulatory fees more consistent, netting the state nearly $500,000.

We see no reason to block the compacts at this point.

Some lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, have grumbled that the compact amendments might be the last shot at getting tribes to share casino profits with the state.

But that’s never going to happen. The state simply cannot dictate or use leverage on tribes to win such a money-sharing agreement — and neither lawmakers, nor then-Gov. Gary Locke, were willing to offer something big enough (such as exclusivity in gambling) to make it worthwhile for tribes to share in their profits.

Our only misgiving about the compacts is that a broader discussion of problem gambling was not a part of this round of talks. Tribes already contribute 0.13 percent of net-win proceeds toward programs that educate the public about risks of gambling or for treatment, which is the same 0.13 percent rate paid out of net proceeds from state Lottery, horse racing and card rooms for the same purpose.

Eventually, a broader discussion is needed about the adequacy of funding for treatment.