Arizona’s Native American tribes overwhelmingly oppose a legislative effort to legalize sports betting in Arizona.
They may have an ally in Gov. Doug Ducey.
Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to advance a bill to bring sports gambling to bars and private clubs over the objections of representatives from tribal governments across the state, who argued that sports betting should be discussed with the Governor’s Office.
“The nation supports legal sports betting in the state of Arizona,” said Larry Jackson, vice chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. “But the nation firmly believes that this bill is not the appropriate mechanism for such legislation.”
The Navajo Nation was the only tribe supportive of legislation brought by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City. His SB 1163 would give tribes the exclusive right to operate sports betting machines in their existing casinos, but also remotely at bars and clubs. Those machines, unlike those in casinos, would be taxed at 6.75 percent.
Representatives from the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Carlos Apache Nation and the Yavapai-Apache Nation, and the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, criticized Borrelli for failing to consult with tribes other than the Navajo. Rather than resolve the matter legislatively, tribal leaders urged senators to table Borrelli’s proposal and let tribes negotiate with Ducey.
Ducey agrees, and told the Arizona Capitol Times that sports betting and other technological advances necessitate renegotiations of agreements between tribal leaders and state officials that grant Native American tribes exclusive rights to operate casinos in Arizona.
“What I’m going to want to do is bring all the constituencies together and make sure we do this right and do it in a way that maximizes the opportunity for the state,” Ducey said on February 27.
The Governor’s Office is already engaged in negotiations with tribal leaders to renew, and potentially overhaul, the gaming compacts with certain tribes covering Class 3 games. Sports betting falls under the same category, so it should be subject to the same negotiations regarding the compacts, according to Steve Titla, an attorney for the San Carlos Apache Nation.
A “poison pill” provision, which could nullify the compacts between the tribes and the state, can be triggered if either tribes or the state allege the compact has been violated.
Borrelli’s bill seeks to quash those concerns by giving tribes exclusive domain over sports betting. Steve Hart, a gaming attorney representing the Navajo Nation, said SB 1163 would have no effect on gaming compact negotiations.
“This bill makes tribes that sole operator of sports betting in this state. It doesn’t take away from their exclusivity, it furthers their exclusivity,” Hart told the Appropriations Committee.
While some Democrats urged Borrelli to take a wait-and-see approach and let tribes work with Ducey on sports betting, Borrelli and representatives from the Navajo Nation said time is of the essence. Navajo leaders testified that the likely closure of the Navajo Generating Station, an economic driver for the Navajo, warrants a need for new revenue generators like sports betting.
Borrelli accused some tribal leaders of dragging their feet to try to defeat his legislation. The longer Arizona waits to act on sports betting, the less revenue will come to bear from bettors who will take their wagers elsewhere, he said.
It’s time for Arizona to set up rules for a new industry, Borrelli said, adding that he has little faith in the tribes to swiftly negotiate a resolution with the governor.
“They keep saying this needs to be negotiated in the compact. They’ve been negotiating the compact for the last two and a half years, and nothings come from that,” he said.
Borrelli noted that there’s no mandate in SB 1163 for tribes to operate sports betting machines. And a provision added to the bill makes sports betting conditional on the approval of an agreement between the governor and tribes operating casinos and Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties that stipulates sports betting doesn’t violate the compacts.
That assurance was not enough for most tribes, who argued they’re not yet certain of what benefit, if any, sports betting will provide to their communities. Some tribal leaders testified that they don’t support allowing sports betting outside of casinos, a key provision of Borrelli’s bill.
Verlon Jose, treasurer of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association and vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, said Borrelli might understand those concerns if he’d spoken with more tribal leaders.
Jose testified that he had no idea what Borrelli even looked like before the hearing, and urged the Navajo Nation to consider the interests of all tribes.
“It’s a poorly written bill. It’s bad for tribes. It’s bad for Arizona. And it threatens the future of gaming compacts,” Jose said. “We look to our brothers in the Navajo Nation and others to sit down and have some discussions… You have to respect the tribes and their processes.”
In supporting the bill, Republicans said that the time to act is now.
“This is going to happen, and we have an obligation to make sure it’s managed in the correct way,” said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.
Carmen Forman contributed to this report.