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Why the alarm in Washington about Las Vegas-style gaming?

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When the state gambling commission, meeting in Yakima, recently approved a rule that will allow electronic blackjack and other card games in all casinos in Washington next year, the action came against the usual backdrop of alarm and concern about any gambling issue.

My God, said some of the critics, this could represent another step toward Las Vegas-style gambling in Washington.

So what else is new? We're not missing too many of the Vegas types of gambling now.

And why bad-mouth Las Vegas anyway? At least there they've been honest enough to say if you're going to have gambling, then do it right and have it all. Don't piddle around.

Our state has long subscribed to the little-bit-pregnant school of gambling: Certain types of chance are OK, others are not and we only allow them one step at a time.

There was a time when we were a bit prudish when it came to gambling in The Evergreen State. Then came the roaring 1950s and '60s and the infamous 'tolerance policy'' that allowed gambling in the Seattle and King County area through a scheme of payoffs to elected officials, law enforcement and prosecutors. In 1967, the tolerance policy evaporated with the start of four years of state and federal investigations that resulted in dozens of criminal indictments against public officials.

In 1972, we went legit as a state when voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed gambling activities and in the process eliminated the previous constitutional prohibition against lotteries. The prohibition had effectively put the screws to any widespread approval of gambling in the state, except for pari-mutuel betting on horse racing approved in 1933.

A subsequent 1973 law created the state gambling commission to regulate and control gambling while keeping organized crime in check. The state moved into expanded wagering opportunities with bingo, pull tabs, raffles and card rooms.

Then we started our flirtation with expanded, Las Vegas-style gambling. In 1977, the Legislature approved the state's Charitable Gaming Act, which allowed tightly controlled casino-type gambling for 'Reno nights'' run by nonprofit organizations for fund-raising purposes. Keep this law in mind, because it was to become an innocent player in some serious expansion of gambling later on.

While some state leaders decry the dangers of 'Las Vegas-style'' gambling, the state itself eventually adopted one of the biggest games of chance in any town. It's called the lottery. Authorized in 1982 by the Legislature to help shore up a recession-riddled state budget, it netted $163.2 million last year.

Then came the Really Big Show ? a plethora of tribal casinos around the state, including one operated by the Yakima Nation.

The American Indian casinos are a real study in irony. In the 1970s, there was talk in the Legislature about authorizing two casinos in the state ? one at Ocean Shores and another at George. That met widespread resistance because it could represent another step toward Las Vegas-style gambling in Washington. Not to mention that organized crime would be right behind.

So in light of such concerns, how did we eventually get tribal casinos?

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Federal gaming law, enacted by Congress in 1988, allows the tribes to negotiate compacts with the state to offer any form of gambling in the tribal casinos that's legal in the state.

Remember that 1977 Charitable Gaming Act the state adopted for 'Reno nights?'' Well it wound up being the guideline for determining what types of gambling was allowed for tribal gaming.

According to the gambling commission, the state signed the first compact with the Tulalip Tribe in 1992 and the rest, as they say, is history. Of the 28 federally recognized tribes in the state, 23 now have tribal-state compacts and 14 operate casinos.

The tribal casinos in turn led to recent approval of 'mini-casinos,'' which is actually an expanded card room to allow house-banked blackjack games so the private sector could compete with the American Indian casinos.

The new rules allowing electronic blackjack games will take effect Jan. 1. They will permit the video devices in not only tribal casinos, but also the 62 mini-casinos that have sprung up since state card-room laws were relaxed in 1996.

What would be helpful as we continue our relentless, piecemeal advance toward Las Vegas-style gambling is a legislatively mandated policy. You know, a plan that offers some kind of consistent application and expansion of gambling laws.

After all, gambling exists in this state in a variety of forms, though we fail to understand why some forms are more acceptable than others.

Why is a slot machine that dispenses a paper chit OK in this state, but one that dumps coins (Las Vegas-style) is illegal? They both devour money at a remarkable rate.

Why can't Emerald Downs race track in Auburn have a casino on its site in addition to horse racing, but the Muckleshoot tribal casino just down the road can include wagering on horse racing as part of its gaming fare?

Inconsistencies abound. If we're going to have all this gambling, why shouldn't all the players ? racetracks, mini-casinos, tribal casinos, etc. ? all be able to offer anything that's legal in this state?

So let's not get too alarmed about Las Vegas-style gambling showing up in this state. It's already here.

What we need is a state plan that offers some uniformity and direction in dealing with it.

Editor's note: This editorial on Las Vegas-style gambling appeared July 22 in The Yakima Herald-Republic.