Long-term future of skills games not a sure thing

GILLETTE — The city of Gillette’s decision to kill an ordinance to regulate “skills” games does not end a larger debate about whether businesses and organizations across Wyoming should be allowed the have the games.

In March, the Wyoming Legislature created a statewide gaming commission to be in charge of the permitting process for in-state gaming. The commission also will set punishments for rule violations.

The new law also eliminates the exemption that allows “skills” games and establishes a sunset date of June 30, 2021, to allow businesses who own the electronic wagering devices to keep them if they comply with new regulations set.

After that date, if nothing is done, then all businesses won’t be allowed to use the machines.

“I don’t think that was the Legislature’s intent,” Wyoming Amusement owner Nic George said about the sunset date. “It was more to get a handle on things. Their fear was if they open it up, there would be too many games too fast for any commission to get their arms around it.”

The Gillette City Council was considering an ordinance that would have charged fees for the games at local businesses. Because of the Legislature’s action, however, the council dropped the measure because it would be moot to regulate devices that won’t be allowed after June 30, 2021.

Business owners and machine operators who submitted their machines to the new gaming commission by May 15 and were compliant can continue to operate until June 30, 2021, but if the machines were not they are illegal.

Enrolled Act 95 states that businesses with the machines can continue to operate until June 30, 2021, if:

The games are approved by the new commission; the operator or amusement company submits a lab report stating that the game’s software is compliant; no game allows more than $3 per play and the payout is limited to $3,000 per play; businesses cannot have more than four machines and they have to be located in places that do not allow people younger than 21, and bars pay a $250 fee and operators pay a $2,500 fee that goes into the gaming commission’s account

The maximum penalties for noncompliance are six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“The penalties were set up to discourage illegal activity,” said state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.

Driskill is one of two Wyoming legislators on the Wyoming Gaming Commission. The other is Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper.

If legislators decide to keep the status quo and nothing is done to allow skills games beyond the grace period, business will have to get rid of the machines. The impact for local businesses is unknown.

Bruce Brown, co-owner of Lakeside Liquors and Pat’s Drive-thru Liquor, which has several machines, said he does not know how much his businesses would be impacted.“It would hit us because we get a decent revenue stream from those machines,” he said.

Hopefully, legislators will continue to discuss the issue and not let the sunset date hit without something being done, Brown said.

It would be unfortunate if the machines are taken away because there are some people who come to play to win a few bucks, which is always nice to have, said Center Bar bartender Crash Karns.

“I know a lot of people that enjoy them,” Councilman Tim Carsrud said. “I think people do it for fun. I don’t think they are out to get rich. I think it’s entertainment and that’s it.

For nonprofit organizations like the American Legion, not having the machines could have a big impact.

It would take a lot away of needed revenue, said American Legion Post 42 Commander Buddy Langone.

The Legion only has a few machines and does not have a big crowd like many bars. It also does not collect a lot from the owner of the machines.

“We get a percentage, they get the rest,” Langone said. “The little that we get we put to help a vet and with scholarships, stuff like that.”

Wyoming Gaming Commission Director Charles Moore said the process of examining skills games has been long, and isn’t finished.

“We’re still trying to sort through this,” he said.

The commission has received requests from more than 300 establishments and looked at 918 games statewide, Moore said.

“It’s a process whether it’s 10, 100 or whatever. It’s a process,” he said. “It has been time consuming, but it’s probably more volume than it is difficulty.”

Sorting through the games and determining what is legal was the first step. The next phase is to develop a rule-making process for the games. The last step is to create a report for legislators that will be due in the fall.

The Wyoming Legislature is likely to at the very least re-examine skills games in interim committee meetings and in next year’s general session.

Driskill said he expects numerous bills addressing the games will be drafted, as well as an intense discussion between proponents and opponents.

“I would expect I won’t bring it (up),” he said. “Someone will for certain.”

There are scenarios lawmakers could consider, including getting rid of the sunset provision or extending it in order to do more research on the games and continue the dialogue in search of a possible long-term solution.

“I guess it will be a very robust conversation,” Driskill said.