The legalization of sports betting means the Arizona’s Indian tribes will lose their monopoly on the state’s gambling industry, but they still stand to gain considerable benefits from the new legislation.
Signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on Apr. 15, the legislation makes several amendments to Arizona’s existing gaming compact, and most notably allows up to 10 professional sports franchises and up to 10 Indigenous nations to operate their own sportsbooks.
While the finite number of licenses means that more than half of Arizona’s native peoples will be excluded from conducting their own event-wagering operations, measures have been taken to ensure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. Indigenous leaders helped negotiate the terms of the bill in collaboration with the Governor’s Office
“[Gov. Ducey] did not want any tribe to be worse off under this amendment compact than they were the previous compact,” Department of Gaming Director Ted Vogt said. “That led to some pretty ingenious things that the tribes came up with.”
One such “ingenious” measure is the establishment of a trust fund for small rural communities whose geographic isolation prevents them from running large-scale gambling operations. Under the conditions of the bill, Indigenous nations located within the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas will be required to deposit a portion of their annual revenues into the fund.
“If there is a rural tribe, one of the tribes kind of on the periphery of the metropolitan areas that sees a decline in their revenue, they can make an application,” Vogt said. “It will be to the [Department of Gaming], we’ll validate that, and then they’ll get a disbursement from this trust fund to ensure that they’re made whole.”
Gambling revenues make up a large percentage of rural Indigenous communities’ incomes, and having an extra source of capital to supplement those revenues will go a long way toward securing long-term financial stability for those communities. Lobbyists like Policy AZ’s John MacDonald, who represents the Hualapai and Havasupai peoples of northwestern Arizona, are optimistic about the outlook it presents for the state’s smaller, more remote tribes.
“This bill is extremely important because it’s going to help finalize an agreement that is going to continue to bring much-needed revenue to these reservations,” he said in testimony at the Legislature. “It’s a significant part of what these tribes have to use in their budgets every year. It’s used for a wide variety of needs, [like] care for elders, care for children, education, infrastructure, many different aspects of tribal life.”
MacDonald says the legislation will help further the goals set forth by the original Tribal-State Gaming Compact of 2002, which definitively established gambling rights for all federally-recognized tribes in Arizona. The state of affairs for many communities has improved in the two decades since the passage of the initial agreement, but the amendments enacted by the legislation aim to ensure that things continue to progress in the right direction.
“The original idea of the gaming compacts when they were negotiated and when they were put to a vote of the people in 2002 was that all tribes would benefit,” MacDonald said. “As a result of how the compacts were structured and put before the voters in 2002, that largely has happened. [The Hualapai and Havasupai peoples] certainly support the Compact Trust Fund provisions of this bill.”
The Compact Trust Fund component guarantees a degree of financial security for rural tribes in the event that their revenues decrease, but it also authorizes larger tribes to expand their gaming operations. In addition to the 10 event-wagering licenses that are to be distributed, it allows for new casinos to be built across the state, raises the maximum betting limit and permits a range of new games.
“I think the largest expansion of gaming is what will actually be conducted on tribal lands,” Vogt said. “There could be an addition of nine more casinos under this amended compact, there [is] now just about every Vegas-style game allowed on tribal lands, and then we’ve also increased the betting limits that are allowed. Certainly, while a lot of news has been generated around the event-wagering and fantasy sports, I think it’s important to point out that under this amended compact, there’s going to be a lot more variety and offerings on tribal lands.”