By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- State senators gave final approval late Monday to opening the door for Arizonans to be able to gamble legally on professional and amateur sports as well as fantasy sports.
The 23-6 vote came after a majority of lawmakers rejected a series of amendments seeking to change everything from oversight of the new expanded gaming to where the money goes. The measure now goes to the governor who is expected to sign it because he essentially drafted it.
Monday's vote also came after a Tucson lawmaker is accusing her Democratic colleagues of trading their votes on a controversial gaming bill for cash to spend on legislative priorities.
Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales charged the votes needed for the legislation effectively were bought when Gov. Doug Ducey offered to let the Democrats spend some of the latest COVID-relief dollars on priorities of their choosing.
Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, acknowledged there is money at play. In fact, she said, the governor's office stated off at a figure much lower than the $90 million the Democratic leaders eventually were to negotiate.
But Rios told Capitol Media Services that this had nothing to do with the gaming bill. In fact, she said, most Democratic lawmakers already were supportive because the tribes they represent want the legislation to pass so that Ducey signs deals with them to expand their own gaming opportunities.
"At the end of the day, Democrats have historically stood been with our Native America tribes,'' Rios said.
Instead, she said, this was all about corralling the necessary votes for an entirely separate measure, one that vastly expanded the tax credits available to companies that locate or expand in Arizona.
Rios pointed out that legislation, HB 2321, actually had failed to get Senate approval on March 17.
In the meantime, Intel Corp. was preparing a March 23 announcement that it intended to invest $20 billion in construction of two new plants in Arizona to manufacture computer chips. And she said the governor was anxious to ensure the legislation was in place for him to sign that day.
Rios said most of her members actually already were in support of the incentive legislation. But she said that, given the anxiousness of the governor to get that bill to his desk, they were happy to ensure timely approval on March 22.
"We figured, what the heck,'' Rios told Capitol Media Services.
"If we're in a position to also engage the governor's office so that he allows us to have however small a part in appropriating COVID dollars to our communities, communities of color that really need it, absolutely we're going to take advantage of that,'' she said. "I think we would be neglectful not to.''
Gonzales tried unsuccessfully to convince colleagues to enact better oversight of the new gaming scheme, finding herself with no support among any of her colleagues.
She wasn't the only one with concerns.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, complained that the only people eligible to get a license to take off-reservation wagers on sporting events are the owners of the existing sports franchises.
"We are going to reward people with monopolies with more monopolies,'' she complained. She asked that the process be opened up so anyone can bid to operate one of the 10 off-reservation gaming operations.
But that, too, was rejected by other senators.
The issue actually divides up into two areas.
One are the new gaming compacts that Ducey already has negotiated in secret with the tribes.
It was Arizona voters who in 2002 agreed to give tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos. That led to a series of 20-year compacts signed with tribes.
Those compacts begin to expire next year.
The governor's office contends these aren't new deals, something that might require either voter or legislative approval, but instead are simply "modernizing'' the current compacts. And he says he has the right to enter into these compacts without legislative approval.
In exchange, however, Ducey got the tribes to agree to allow off-reservation wagering on sporting events, something precluded in the original 2002 deals that gave all gaming rights to tribes. Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said that part of the plan could generate revenues in excess of $100 million a year.
But here's the thing: Ducey won't sign the new compact to give the tribes expanded gaming unless and until the legislature approves the off-reservation component Ducey wants. And that has led to pressure on lawmakers whose districts include reservations to support the legislation.
One issue for Gonzales is the scope of the new gaming.
She pointed out the Arizona Board of Regents is on record in opposition to the measure, what with the idea of having people wagering on college games. Gonzales said that only complicates matters for the University of Arizona which is in her legislative district.
"I see the problem with the basketball program,'' she said, including the firing of coach Sean Miller and the fact that a former assistant coach was sentenced to prison over funneling cash to students.
So what does that have to do with gaming?
"Obviously, there's problems there with recruiting our students to come play for the University of Arizona's basketball team,'' Gonzales said. "And there's problems with how much underhanded money they obviously get paid for to come.''