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Panelists debate expanded Arizona gambling proposals

Lonny

The Feb. 22 Morning Scoop panel (From left to right): Lonny Powell, director of the Arizona Department of Racing; Sen. Steve Gallardo; Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association; Vince Francia, general manager of horse-racetrack Turf Paradise; Rick Pyper, legal counsel for legislative affairs for the Arizona Department of Gaming. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

As lawmakers and the governor turn every stone and flip every couch cushion for any extra money, the debate about the expansion of gambling – and the money that it could bring to state and local coffers – flares around Arizona.

Stakeholders in the industry gathered at Tom’s Tavern in downtown Phoenix on Feb. 22 for Arizona Capitol Times’ Morning Scoop event to debate where, if at all, a new casino and expanded gambling activities should be allowed.

For panelist Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, legislation aimed at halting the Tohono O’odham tribe’s plans to build a new Indian casino near the city of Glendale’s Westgate Center reflects Republican lawmakers’ opposition to gambling in general.

“Most of the people pushing this legislation are either from Glendale, or from the East Valley and do not support any type of gaming at all,” Gallardo said. “It is more that these people don’t believe in gaming and don’t think that’s where Arizona should go.”

The legislation was opposed by some legislators on the grounds that it would have infringed on the tribe’s property rights by allowing Glendale to immediately annex the land into the city, preventing it from becoming a reservation.

If the land becomes a reservation, the tribe would be allowed to build the casino. It appears the fate of the proposal will ultimately not be decided by legislation.

“Either the courts or the federal government is going to ultimately decide the Glendale issue, not the Arizona state Legislature,” Gallardo said during the panel discussion.

Panelist Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, is left in the middle of the debate, since the association lobbies for Arizona’s 17 gaming tribes, including both the Tohono O’odham, who want to build the casino, and the Gila River Indian Community, which filed a lawsuit to stop the project.

Predictably, the association is not taking a position on the issue and isn’t “lobbying for either side,” Morago said. She agreed with Gallardo that the courts will make the final determination on the project.

Although Morago is a neutral party between the tribes battling over gaming, she isn’t on the sidelines when it comes to allowing Arizona’s racetracks to add slot machines and casino table games.

“We have to think in terms of the long-term effects,” she said. “We don’t want Arizona to turn into another Nevada.”

Panelist Vince Francia, general manager of horse-racetrack Turf Paradise, says racinos, as racing facilities with casino games are a good idea because they boost the economy and provide increased revenue to the state.

“Racinos are a way of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the state for our Legislature to decide how to use that money wisely,” Francia said. “It is not our intent to harm the sovereign nations; it is our intent to help the state and to help our industry.”

Morago countered that permitting racinos would trigger the “poison pill” in the 2002 State/Tribal Gaming Compacts, which would allow an unlimited number of casinos, slot machines and table games on reservations. Currently tribes are restricted to a certain number of slot machines and table games at a certain number of casinos on reservation land only.

She added that if racinos are allowed, business owners with liquor licenses would also seek to have gambling devices in their establishments.

Despite Morago’s objections, Francia said he intends to propose detailed legislation that would allow full gaming at horse and dog racing tracks.

Panelist Rick Pyper, legal counsel for legislative affairs for the Arizona Department of Gaming, said regulation for gaming proposals would largely depend on how legislation allowing expanded gaming is written.

“Depending on how a bill could be crafted, one could envision if there is an emphasis on gaming devices, our department would have expertise that would be available to the state to be utilized, but there are so many variables, it would be hard to comment on any hypothetical bill that we haven’t seen yet,” Pyper said.

Panelist Lonny Powell, director of the Arizona Department of Racing, said regulation issues should be dealt with by the governor and Legislature.

“As state agencies, we will support those decisions and we will execute accordingly upon them,” he said.

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