Nearly all gambling in Wyoming is illegal, but what agency investigates infractions and enforces the law in cases of legalized gambling – or who investigates when an illegal form of gambling is uncovered in Wyoming – remains unclear.
Some have said there are more than 400 illegal slot machines operating in the state, and there is no one central clearinghouse for enforcement. The cost to investigate a single illegal slot machine can be exorbitant, and local agencies have been hesitant to foot the bill.
As such, in early October, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources Interim Committee voted to move forward with a bill that would dedicate more state resources toward gambling regulation. If approved in the 2020 legislative budget session beginning Feb. 10, a statewide gaming commission could be created.
According to draft legislation, the Legislature would convert the state’s Pari-Mutuel Commission to the Wyoming Gaming Commission. Currently, the Pari-Mutuel Commission regulates horse racing in the state, but a gaming commission would regulate all games of chance.
If approved in 2020, establishments conducting games of chance would have to be licensed by the commission, as would vendors and suppliers of gaming devices. The commission would also provide for distribution of a portion of wagers on games of chance in a manner generally similar to historic horse racing wagering.
Qualified gaming commission employees would also be peace officers, and all cities and counties would be able to host their own local elections on whether to allow games of chance in their communities.
The legislation would not expand legalized gambling in the state.
“All gambling in Wyoming is illegal … with a few exceptions,” Byron Oedekoven, Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, explained. “But who goes forth and enforces a regulation” when a particular slot machine is determined to be illegal? It may seem that the investigation should fall to local law enforcement, but they can be very expensive, he said.
“The forensic inspection of that machine is somewhere between $4,000 and $50,000 per machine,” Oedekoven said. “There has been a kind of ‘wait and see’ to see who will do the inspections … and so far, I am unaware of anything happening.
“Some within the Legislature were going, ‘OK, how can we get a grip on this deal? How can we deal with this when we have several different opinions on how to do that?’” Oedekoven said. “One thought is, let’s create a gaming commission, let’s fund the gaming commission and tell the gaming commission which machines are legal, which are not, and they can go forward. Thus, they would fund the $4,000 to $50,000 inspection and do it.”
Since 2013, legalized historic horse racing regulated by the Pari-Mutuel Commission has returned millions of dollars derived from wagering activity back to the state of Wyoming, according to Charles Moore, director of the Wyoming Pari-Mutuel Commission. From 2014-19, that amounted to $22,095,899.07 in city and county funding and $9,083,421 from the Breeders Award Fund in the same time period.
In 2019, $2 million was added to the State Fair Endowment Account, $2.3 million to the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account and $200,000 to the Animal Damage Control Account.
Any gambling activity lives in a strict regulatory atmosphere within Wyoming, Moore said, and within that system, the majority of people participating are honest people.
“The 3- to 5-percenters may be trying to cheat the system, but we’ve got 98% who are really good, honest people,” Moore said. “We live in an extremely strict regulatory atmosphere. Most gaming does live in that kind of a world, so it seems right and natural that all gaming needs to be under similar parameters.”
Moore said the proposed legislation would help the state to understand, first, how much gaming activity is out there and, secondly, how much of it is happening in an unregulated system.
“Once we know how much is out there, we would want to know how much wagering activity is going on at X, Y and Z location. We may go a step further to, ‘Are you really giving back to a local charity like you are required to by law?’” Moore said.
Oedekoven said that if the Legislature does create a gaming commission, his organization would support it – if done the right way, with funding in place for proper enforcement.
“Part of the bill establishes the state function in reviewing legal and illegal machines. And, yes, we would be in favor of that,” Oedekoven said. “We have said, though, that if you do that, go forth and do it correctly. Staff it correctly, fund it correctly, hire the right kind of folks to do that investigation.
“But the second half of that is to answer, ‘Do you even want slot machines operating in Wyoming?’”
And that question, he said, should be left to local cities, counties, towns and communities.