CHEYENNE - Though the final version may look different, lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday morning that would establish a gaming commission to provide regulations that some say are sorely needed for the growing industry.
Lawmakers have been looking for ways to regulate gaming for years. While games of chance are illegal in Wyoming, games of skill are allowed. But there has been a lack of regulatory oversight for machines and poker games that can be found in a growing number of bars across the state.
Ultimately, members of the Legislature's Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee advanced a bill to set up an eight-member gaming commission to oversee all legalized gaming in the state. Currently, Wyoming only has a pari-mutuel commission that oversees horse racing games.
Despite the committee's approval, state lawmakers, city officials and gaming administrators had a few issues with the bill. Their primary concern was regarding a component that would require citizens to vote during the 2020 general election on whether to allow skill-based games in their town or city.
Mike Moser, a lobbyist for the Wyoming State Liquor Association, argued the bill as written could cause many businesses that have already invested in gaming machines to shut down.
"No regulation is better than bad regulation," Moser said. "It breaks my heart to do so, Mr. Chairman, and we'll try to fix it if it passes introduction, but at this point, we oppose (the bill)."
Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr also testified during the meeting. She asked the committee to consider a clause giving cities the ability to opt out of having games, rather than one requiring them to opt in.
"In the city of Cheyenne, we've had business that have made substantial investments ... in increasing the entertainment business," Orr said. "I just think it would be a real game-changer for some of the businesses and would ask for your consideration to make an 'opt-out' situation moving forward."
The bill's language also drew criticism from members of the Northern Arapaho tribe. Kimberly Harjo, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said her group is generally supportive of a gaming commission, but added the bill as written would expand gambling across the state without proper regulations.
"We strongly believe this legislation needs more input, particularly from regulators, law enforcement and the tribes," Harjo said.
Yet others thought the opt-in requirement was necessary to have uniform regulations for all types of gaming.
Laurie Urbigkit, a lobbyist for Wyoming Horse Racing LLC, said the bill essentially puts skills games through the same processes as horse racing games, noting the opt-in language already dictates pari-mutuel games like horse racing.
"That's the rules that we have to live by, so I think the people of the state have the right to determine whether they want gaming in their community or in their county," Urbigkit said.
While some lawmakers on the committee had issues with the bill, only two - Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, and Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette - voted against sponsoring the bill as a committee.
Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, who co-chairs the committee but was unable to attend the meeting, wrote that he would support the bill to get it out of committee, but added he is not in favor of the opt-in provision in the bill.
The state Legislature will have a chance to sort out the details of the bill during its budget session, which begins Monday.