Washington lawmakers managed to avoid the question of legalized sports betting during this year’s session, but the issue is unlikely to go away.
In the wake of a 2018 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that opened the doors, many states this year stepped toward allowing gambling on sporting events. In Washington, three bills were introduced in the Legislature, with none of them drawing many followers.
Under the state’s 1973 Gambling Act, a 100-square pool board is the only type of sports wagering that is legal in the state. The law specifies that squares must cost no more than $1 apiece, numbers representing game scores must be randomly drawn, and “only one sports board is allowed per sporting event per business or party,” according to the Washington State Gambling Commission. Yes, your office pool for the NCAA basketball tournament is illegal.
Judging from the popularity of those NCAA pools and the growing prevalence of online sports wagering, we’re guessing that many Washingtonians choose to ignore those regulations. And judging from the number of states that have moved to embrace legalized gambling, we’re guessing that our state will be forced to consider sports wagering during next year’s legislative session.
The American Gaming Association, a casino industry group, estimates that $58 billion is wagered annually on National Football League or college football games, most of it illegally. As Washington Post columnist George Will has noted, “Gambling has swiftly transformed from social disease into social policy.”
Whether or not that is a wise policy is a question that requires robust discussion. State governments here and elsewhere have become increasingly dependent on lotteries to raise revenue in order to balance the books. In fiscal year 2018, Washington’s Lottery paid $134.2 million to educational programs and another $31.2 million to the general fund. Some $457.9 million was paid back to winners, but there were enough people who gambled and lost that $280 million was added to the state coffers.
Proponents of adding legalized gambling on sporting events point to the prospect of taxing the endeavor and to the fact that other states are dipping into the pot. Oregon is pursuing plans to include betting on NFL games as early as this season, which begins Sept. 5.
Dave Trujillo, executive director of the Washington Gambling Commission recently told The (Tacoma) News Tribune: “Historically speaking, as activities become tolerated, they become more prevalent. When they become more prevalent, they become more accepted and people will then conduct their own games or activities outside of regulated and taxable structures.”
Trujillo said he expects the Legislature to consider gambling-related bills during next year’s 60-day session, but does not anticipate action until the longer 2021 session. In the meantime, Washington lawmakers should keep a close eye on how the issue plays out in other states.
In addition, Congress should establish some parameters for the industry. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced sports betting legislation last year, and NFL executive Jocelyn Moore told a congressional committee, “We are very concerned leagues and states alone cannot fully guard against the harms Congress has long associated with sports betting.”
The temptation is for states to view sports betting as another feather on the Golden Goose that is legalized gambling. But Washington would be wise to approach the issue with caution.