Statewide gaming rules will hurt reservation casinos, says expert

RIVERTON — Statewide gaming provisions enacted by the Wyoming Legislature in March could result in hundreds of jobs – and millions of dollars – lost in the tribal gaming sector. 

An expert evaluation by longtime gaming expert and former Wind River Hotel and Casino CEO Jim Conrad estimated a monetary loss of up to $20 million dollars a year by tribal gaming entities locally – from the total gaming win revenue before expenses. 

Prior to 2018, the casino earned millions in profits; much of its take went to its operating entity, the Northern Arapaho Tribe. 

Tribal officials did not furnish a profitability figure for the past two years, as of press time. 

“But the real loss (with widespread off-reservation gambling) is the loss of jobs,” said Conrad. “When you take 350 jobs lost, that’s 350 families on the reservation that are not going have that income.” 

He also doubted whether that money could ever return to the tribal gaming enterprise once lost to scattered, state-legal machines in truck-stops or other smaller-scale businesses. 

“I don’t know what’s going to take to stop gaming from advancing to the point where the whole state is involved – to where there are little casinos in every major town, big enough to take care of the whole population in every area,” said Conrad, who said elected officials from legislators, to county commissioners, to mayors would, likely, be eager to embrace gaming to salvage government programs imperiled by the COVID-19 and minerals economic crises. 

“Because,” he said “a percentage of that revenue goes into the county and the city, and so there’s great motivation to continue to have (gaming machines).” 

The 2020 gaming commission created by the state to study viability and taxability of some machines also temporarily legalized those machines, many of which had been operating under a gray area of the law until then. 

Although lawmakers have been keen to develop state-legal gaming, Conrad – who lived in Fremont County for more than 14 years while running the Wind River Hotel and Casino – said the people of Wyoming may still be lukewarm toward gambling overall. 

“I would venture a good part of the state still does not want that gaming on every corner in their towns,” he said. “I believe that’s still the case.” 

In 2002, the state of Wyoming lost its opportunity to hold a gaming compact with the Northern Arapaho Tribe, when a federal judge ruled that the state failed to cooperate “in good faith” with the tribe. 

Wyoming had refused to accept the tribe’s gaming terms within the contract deadline. 

But the economic crisis will drive lawmakers to resources that were considered by many to be unthinkable just 18 years ago. 

“I think because of shortfall in gas and oil tax,” said Conrad, “the state is looking for whatever they think could help them. But I don’t think the popularity (of gaming) has changed.” 

A statewide ballot initiative was defeated on the general election ballot in the 1990s. 

The Northern Arapaho Business Council’s anti-gaming lobby group, the Wyoming Public Policy Center, helped to defeat state gambling during the 2019 Legislative session. 

But the lobby group, which the NABC majority has since labelled an “embarrassment,” was dissolved nominally in November of 2019. Its lead lobbyist, Mark Howell, was fired by the tribe four months earlier, in July 2019. 

During the crafting of the 2020 gaming legislation that has now been made legal, NABC member Kim Harjo addressed law-makers, saying “the bill creates a slippery slope that will lead to full-blown gaming throughout the state,” and that the tribe “strongly believes this legislation needs more input from regulators, law enforcement, the tribe, and the public." 

Input from the tribe was instituted in a specific way: one of the members of the new state gaming commission must be a tribal member. 

Conrad said the collaboration equates to “the tribe going along with” state legal gaming. 

“And without the tribe fighting against (state gambling), who’s going to try to stop it?” he asked. “I don’t think there’s anyone that has the funds or the resources to do that.”