Gaming commission bill wins final House approval after long debate

CHEYENNE - After nearly two hours of debate over how expansive gaming should be in Wyoming, a bill establishing a statewide gaming commission to oversee the industry won final approval Thursday night from the House of Representatives.

There's a widespread consensus in the Legislature that the gaming industry needs to be regulated in Wyoming to bring clarity to both law enforcement and gaming companies. In Wyoming, skill games currently exist through a loophole in state law, while games of chance are illegal.

After it passed out of committee Monday, House Bill 171 won approval on the last day bills could be advanced out of their house of origin - though lawmakers pushed that deadline to Friday to allow for consideration of a few more bills.

If it becomes law, HB 171 would expand the state's pari-mutuel commission on horse gaming to a nine-member gaming commission. One section of the bill would allow skill-based games to continue in the state until June 2021, though any operator of such games would have to gain approval from a gaming laboratory approved by the commission to ensure the machine isn't faulty.

On the House floor Thursday, the most debated amendment came from House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper. His proposal would have expanded the commission's oversight to include video gaming terminals, which some lawmakers argued was too broad of a step to take as the commission gets off the ground.

"I'm not in favor of both allowing the skill games and allowing even more than that," Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, said. "If we want to get this under control, I don't think the answer is opening the door even wider."

Yet others saw the measure as a way to actually regulate what's already in the state. Between 500 and 1,000 unregulated machines are estimated to currently exist in the state, and Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, argued the amendment acknowledged that reality.

"At least this is honest," Lindholm said of the amendment. "The reality is you've got slots in the state of Wyoming. Whether you want to believe it or not ... reality is you can go into one of my favorite little bars in Casper, and you tell me if those are historic horse racing games. Because they're not."

The amendment also would have collected 50% of weekly net proceeds from the terminals to be reverted back to local and state governments. Rep. John Freeman, D-Green River, who studied gaming extensively over the interim session, said the 50% threshold made him pause, as industry standards for the remittances usually hover between 30% and 36%.

Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, agreed the threshold was too high, arguing the level would give an advantage to Las Vegas-based companies with deep enough pockets to pay the price.

"I'm in total agreement on getting the bad actors out, but the good ones that are following the law as close as they can ... they can't make it at 50%," Sweeney said.

Harshman, in response, said the amendment wasn't pitting Nevada versus small-town Wyoming.

"I think it's two big guys, three big guys, four big guys," Harshman said. "I'm trying to just open up all these windows and shine all the light on them and let everybody compete, then let the commission decide who are the legitimate vendors and operators and all of that."

After a little under an hour worth of debate, the amendment failed by a 31-27 vote, though another tweak to the bill was able to win the approval of the majority of the House.

The other amendment, also proposed by Harshman, set a repeal date on the bill's temporary authorization of skill games, which the House Speaker argued was necessary in case the next Legislature was unable to decide what to do.

After nearly two hours of debate, House Bill 171 won approval by a 43-16 vote. The bill will now move to the Senate, where it needs to win three votes before it could go to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon.