Legislative Building 2

The Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SEATTLE — Some form of legalized sports betting in Washington state appears closer than ever after two legislative votes in recent days moved proposed companion bills another step toward full approval.

And if not this year — shortened legislative sessions in the House and Senate that end March 13 make for a very narrow window — pro-gambling advocates say there’s plenty of momentum to get something done by early 2021. Their latest gain on Thursday saw SB-6394 — a bill to legalize sports gambling within the state’s Native American tribal venues — voted out of a Senate Labor & Commerce committee and onward to a potential full floor vote by next month.

“I feel like there is a strong pathway for us to get it to the governor this year,’’ Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, lead sponsor of SB-6394, said after Thursday’s committee vote. “That’s what I’m working on.’’

She’ll know more Tuesday, the deadline for a House companion bill, HB-1975, to get pushed forward by an appropriations committee to a potential floor vote there. That bill was already similarly voted out of its committee of origin late last week — the first time that’s happened for sports gambling bills in both houses of the Legislature.

HB-1975 sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said in an interview Thursday he’s confident his bill will be forwarded toward that full House vote and that both companion initiatives can be fast-tracked this spring to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

“I’d say the momentum is really big right now because we control the outcome,” Peterson said. He added: “Working with our tribal partners, we have real control over the final product.”

Saldana’s bill now awaits the scheduling of a floor vote — though it technically could still get pulled back for financial review. She said she’s letting the House bill take the lead and that no Senate vote will happen unless HB-1975 gets approved first.

“Our intent was to have true companion bills all the way through,’’ Saldana said. “I think that ours is a mirror of theirs. And if it is a mirror and we don’t do any more mucking around of their version, then it can go straight to the governor.’’

Even if the bills don’t pass this time, she sees “huge’’ momentum for the ensuing January 2021 session. There’ll be more legislative awareness here by then, she added, and increased data about sports gambling in nearby states to “help us gain more support for why we need to do something like this in Washington.’’

Sports gambling remains illegal in Washington, but the issue has gained traction since the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a 1992 federal law outlawing sports gaming in most states. Individual states now must decide how to proceed and 14 have already legalized sports betting, seven have passed legislation on it and 23 are contemplating various bills.

Sports leagues have also formed deals with gambling entities. The NHL signed a sports betting deal last year with MGM Resorts to provide it proprietary player-and-puck-tracking data. More locally, NHL Seattle, the city’s new team that will take the ice in the 2021-2022 season, has made Muckleshoot Casino an official partner and could benefit from additional agreements with that tribe if it and others gain sports gambling exclusivity.

HB-1975 was initially sponsored last year by Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle), who has since stepped down to assume a full-time community ambassador and suites director role with NHL Seattle.

The team and tribe are monitoring developments in Olympia but say no future gambling deals between them are planned.

Lawmakers in both Legislatures here have favored the tribal-only sports gambling option, given those venues have for years been where much of this state’s legalized gambling of any kind has been allowed. They’ve felt that limiting any sports betting to Washington’s tribal venues will enable the state to better control and reduce the risk of problem gambling and the potential for minors to become addicted.

“The tribes, as we have seen, do an excellent job of funding problem gambling programs and that’s why I support keeping this within the tribal casino system,” Sen. Derek Stanford (D-Bothell) said in a committee executive session ahead of Thursday’s vote.

Washington allows limited gambling outside tribal facilities in “card room” casinos, but only card games like poker that are played against the “house” and not other individual gamblers. A separate set of companion bills, HB-2478 and SB-6277, which Nevada-based Maverick Gaming LLC pushed for in both Legislature had called for expanded sports gaming beyond tribal lands. Maverick Gaming bought up 19 of the state’s 44 licensed card rooms in the past year.

But while they received hearings in both Legislatures, HB-2478 and SB-6277 were allowed to expire with no votes taken.

Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima) had co-sponsored SB-6277 and tried unsuccessfully Thursday to have several amendments placed on the tribal-only bill before it was voted through.

King and Maverick Gaming have argued the state could earn $50 million annually off taxes from sports gambling beyond tribal casinos and that more study is needed.

“This is too big a deal to do in one session,” King told committee members. “Again, who goes to the tribal casinos? It’s the citizens of the state of Washington. … So, the citizens of the state of Washington ought to benefit from the revenue that this is going to generate.”

A major component of the tribal proposal is the legalization of mobile betting, accounting for about 80% of all sports wagering. The ability to place sports bets online through mobile devices has raised nationwide concern for its potential to be abused by minors.

The tribal-only proposal would limit mobile wagering to its facilities, something lawmakers have suggested would be easier to monitor and control. Any online wagering is currently a Class C felony in Washington.

Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson said in an interview after Thursday’s vote he’d also support limiting any mobile wagering to card rooms and other licensed entities. He said his 19 card rooms total only about 285,000 square feet of space where sports gambling would occur, compared to more than 500,000 square feet for Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Puyallup tribal casinos alone.

Persson doubts the sports gambling bills get approved this year and vowed to keep pushing to join other gambling interests in combining on a more comprehensive legislative approach next January. His company employs about 2,200 state residents, including 1,700 card room workers recently unionized under Teamsters Local 117.

“We’re pretty confident that when no bill gets passed this session, it will force all parties — the racetracks, myself and Native Americans — to come together and find legislation we can all support,” Persson said. “And grow this business in a manner that will benefit all Washingtonians.”

But Rebecca Kaldor, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, said tribal gambling is already the most regulated wagering by state and federal agencies.

“100% of our revenue goes to essential governmental services and reaches into some of the poorest communities in our state,’’ said Kaldor, whose nonprofit trade association lobbies for and raises awareness on policy issues. “And the benefit isn’t just to us tribal members. It’s really to our entire community that we’re lifting up out of poverty.’’

In addition, she added, tribal gambling money gets spent on sales-tax-generating supplies and services beyond tribal communities and provides jobs for more than 30,000 people statewide.

“The benefits don’t stay on the reservation,” she said.