Arizona Senate Rules Committee Sends Sports Betting To Floor

Sports betting took its final step in the Arizona Senate before reaching the floor when the Rules Committee on Wednesday morning unanimously voted to move it forward. The potential legalization of sports wagering, now attached to a historical horse racing bill, is on the floor in both chambers in some fashion.

The Rules Committee is tasked with approving legislation that is “proper” and constitutionally correct, and these issues came up in a brief discussion before SB 1794 was passed. Allowing video terminal-style historical horse racing — wagering based on previously run horse or dog races — is considered a “poison pill” in Arizona. The result of legalizing it likely spells a violation of tribal-state compacts, such that Arizona’s tribes could then stop paying the state gaming revenue as agreed upon. Sports betting itself could also be considered a poison pill, however negotiations are underway on new compacts classifying sports betting within the definition of Class III gaming.

The sports betting “bills would pop the poison pill, too,” said Chairwoman Karen Fann. “They expand gaming, too, which is not in the compact. We know the tribes are saying they are OK to do it, but technically, those bills do the same thing.”

“But it’s not the poison pill until the tribes say it’s the poison pill, right?” said Senator Vince Leach.

Compacting, legalizing at same time tricky

Both are correct, which is part of what makes legalizing sports wagering in tribal states so tricky. Sports wagering — or any form of gaming — must be included in a compact in order to honor the tribes’ rights to exclusivity in many states, including Arizona. Currently, the only casino gaming allowed in the state is at tribal locations. Tribal representatives have agreed that they support legal sports betting, including statewide mobile as well as at retail locations at Indian casinos and professional sports venues, when the current compact negotiations are complete. But legislation is moving forward on a parallel track before compacting is done, making the whole process not terribly transparent or easy to understand.

The state attorney general in 2018 offered an opinion that historical horse racing would violate the compact, and HHR is not part of the current compacting discussion, which is why the focus of the poison-pill discussion is on HHR. Why the Appropriations Committee decided to combine HHR and sports betting isn’t clear, though it’s likely some sort of political ploy to either kill sports betting or slow down the approval process. Some sources say the HHR portion of the bill could be stripped on the Senate floor, and sports betting would move forward.

In the end, Rules Committee members determined that it was not for them to say whether or not the poison pill would be put into play, but rather whether a bill is appropriately structured to move forward.

“To me, the poison pill doesn’t make the bill improper or unconstitutional,” Senator Rick Gray said. “We’re just passing something that is constitutional. We don’t focus on policy, we focus on proper form and constitutionality.”

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