GILLETTE — Wyoming has come a long way from its roots.
But when it comes to gambling, some lawmakers believe the Cowboy State today isn’t much different from its wilder days.
“On the surface, it really is the Wild West,” said state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. “It’s do whatever you want until someone says no.”
Driskill wants the state to get a handle on gaming across Wyoming before it gets out of control.
In June, the Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources, of which Driskill is co-chair, decided not to consider creating a gaming commission that would regulate gambling across the state.
The joint committee met again last week, however, and Driskill moved to form a task force to look at the possibility of the state’s Pari-Mutuel Commission, which regulates horse racing, to expand to include regulation of all forms of legalized gaming.
The way Wyoming law is written, all gambling is illegal except for specific types of games that have been exempted in state statute, said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.
The Pari-Mutuel Commission, which was established in 1967, oversees the protection of the wagering public and the health, safety and welfare of the participants in horse racing. But other legal forms of gambling, such as bingo, pull-tab games and the lottery, are unregulated.
Because the state does not regulate the gaming industry as a whole, it’s missing out on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. But Driskill said regulating the industry is not about money, it’s about sending a message. It’s a message of fairness and that if you break the law, you will face consequences.
Currently, that message is not getting out there, Driskill said. The few laws already in place aren’t always enforced, and so companies come into the state and bring in games of chance.
“We’ve literally taught them, ‘Don’t worry about following the law, we won’t prosecute you,’” he said. “I can’t blame them for what they’re doing. No one’s telling them they’re illegal and no one’s prosecuting them.”
For the last few years, the debate has been over video gaming terminals. At the end of 2018, state Attorney General Peter Michael issued an opinion saying more than 300 machines in Wyoming were illegal because they were games of chance, not games of skill.
Besides illegal games, there are “gray games” all over the state, so-called because it’s not immediately evident whether they’re legal. The only way to tell if they’re breaking the law is through a forensic review of the machine, Oedekoven said.
The investigation has to be initiated by county attorneys or local law enforcement, but they don’t have the money or training to do that on a regular basis, he said.
Testifying before the state Joint Travel Committee in June, Cheyenne Mayor Mariann Orr asked legislators to look at expanding gambling as a way to diversify Wyoming’s tourism portfolio.
“Tourism is about the experience, the romance of the West, and it’s about our history,” she said. “Poker and game tables, that’s a part of our history.”
Driskill said he thinks it’s worth taking “a look at what gaming has done, good and bad, elsewhere.”
Lawmakers in Wyoming have very little appetite for regulation, Driskill said. There have been many attempts to regulate gaming, with little success.
Since 2009, there have been 23 bills introduced specific to gambling, bingo, pull tabs, parimutuel betting and skill machine. Of those, only seven have been signed into law, and all of those were related to parimutuel betting.
Both Oedekoven and Driskill are worried that as long as gaming goes unregulated, companies will continue to bring in new video gaming terminals, many of them illegal.
Driskill said it’s difficult for a regulated industry to compete with an unregulated one, and that it’s possible Wyoming could lose its historic horse racing industry if it doesn’t regulate gaming as a whole.
Driskill has heard concerns from other lawmakers that a gaming commission would be an expansion of government. Driskill disagrees. One of government’s functions, he said, is “to make sure that your citizens are treated fairly and equally,” and that includes when they’re at a machine or a card table.
“There’s a fine line between adding government and making sure illegal activity isn’t being authorized,” Oedekoven said.
In 2013, Wyoming lawmakers approved the lottery, making the Cowboy State the 44th state to do so.
Wyoming is one of two states — the other being North Dakota — that has a lottery but does not sell scratch cards, which Wyoming Lottery CEO Jon Clontz compared to owning a bar and not selling the top brand of beer.
But Clontz said he quickly learned that “the lottery only got approved because it prohibited instant games.”
Driskill said he was in favor of the lottery in 2013 because he saw how much money Wyoming’s residents were spending on lottery tickets in other states.
“If people are going to spend the money, it’d be much better to spend it in a Wyoming store,” he said.
People have been spending money, and they’ve been spending a lot. Through the first nine months of fiscal year 2019, there was $30.2 million in lottery ticket sales, an increase of more than $7 million over the first three quarters of the previous year.
Nearly $15 million has been distributed to counties and municipalities around the state since April 2016. Gillette has received $950,347 in total, while Campbell County has gotten $431,139.
If the Wyoming Lottery tries to add a game that provides instant gratification, it will face a lot of opposition from the state, Driskill said.
Wyoming Lottery has four established games in its portfolio: the national Powerball and Mega Millions games, and statewide games Lucky For Life and Cowboy Draw. It also recently released its newest game, Ragtime Raffle.
Clontz said he and his staff will soon start looking at adding a new game, keno, to the mix. It would be available at the roughly 450 locations across Wyoming that sell lottery tickets and would also expand into 150 new locations, including bars and taverns.
Driskill said he’s skeptical of keno because from what he’s heard, it seems “pretty close to instant gratification,” but said he’ll withhold judgment until he sees the game for himself.
Horse racing in Wyoming has seen a revival in recent years, thanks to the addition of historic horse racing, an electronic game that allows people to bet on races that have already happened.
In 2013, the state Legislature approved a bill that gave some communities the option to authorize historic horse racing. Only communities that have or had live horse racing were allowed to have historic horse racing, Oedekoven said.
In the fall of 2015, historic horse racing machines were shut down after then-state Attorney General Peter Michael ruled they were not compliant with state law. The machines were down for 18 months, but have since been reinstated.
There are two locations in Gillette that offer historic horse racing: Wyoming Downs and the Horse Palace. And for a few days a year, there is live horse racing at Energy Downs in Cam-plex.
Since 2013, bettors have wagered $570.6 million on historic horse racing, and $525.6 million has been paid out to the public.
State statute requires 1% of the total amount of money wagered to be distributed to counties and municipalities. Since 2013, $5.7 million has been paid out. Gillette and Campbell County have each received $435,550.
Bingo and pull-tab games also are unregulated for the most part. State statute has rules in place regarding the games. They can only be held by nonprofits and to play the games, one must be at least 18 years old.
Video bingo terminals were introduced in 2004, where players could put their money in, push a button and see if they had a winning number on their card. Oedekoven said the state quickly outlawed those games.
In 2017 and 2018, lawmakers considered bills calling for the regulation of bingo and pull tabs. In 2017, Driskill and two other legislators sponsored a bill that would have put bingo and pull-tab games under the regulation of the Pari-Mutuel Commission. It died in committee.
In 2018, the joint travel committee sponsored a bill that provided for local control over bingo and pull tab games. It passed the Senate on a 28-1 vote and was referred to the House Travel Committee, which recommended that it pass. But it was not considered in the Committee of the Whole and died.
Former state Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said those games bring in a lot of money, and for many of the lodges across the state “it’s the gambling that’s keeping their doors open.”
“There are those run by the good nonprofits, then there are other folks in the name of the nonprofits that may not be doing it as well as they should,” Oedekoven said.
Poker, and any other wagering game, is legal as long as it falls within the confines of a “bona fide social agreement,” as written in state statute.
What this means, Oedekoven said, is that a game of poker, even if it’s high stakes, is legal as long as it’s among friends.
“You can’t have a paid dealer, can’t have the house take a cut, can’t have the house sponsor a deal,” Oedekoven said.
If there are just two people in the game who don’t know each other, that’s where things get dicey, he said. So a poker tournament, whether it’s for charity or competition, could become “illegal very quickly,” he said.
“They’d have to be on their game to make sure they were fitting within the legal parameters.”