Sarah Walters

More than ever, access to technology is a necessity for real economic growth. For some tribal nations, various hurdles have stymied economic development, limiting job prospects and opportunities for entrepreneurs and tribal business expansion. These obstacles have included not only a lack of physical infrastructure to support modern businesses, but also cumbersome legal and bureaucratic roadblocks that make it difficult to do business in Indian country. 

However, a bill under consideration in New York state could break down at least one barrier between tribes and economic development. New York state Senator Joseph Addabbo's bill, S. 17—A, if signed into law, will allow Indian gaming establishments to participate in the online sports betting market throughout New York.

As an attorney in federal Indian law and former counselor and attorney at the National Indian Gaming Commission, I had the opportunity to testify in May before the New York State Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee in support of Sen. Addabbo's bill, S. 17—A. 

The bill would authorize casinos owned by tribes within New York state borders to offer mobile sports betting to consumers anywhere within the state. New York is home to several tribes engaged in gaming pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The United States’ current interpretation of federal laws, however, would limit mobile bets placed through tribal gaming platforms to Indian lands. As consumers seek out digital gaming platforms, limiting Indian gaming establishments’ participation to their Indian lands will harm tribes and their surrounding economies.

As a lifelong advocate for the empowerment of tribes, I want states to understand three reasons for allowing Indian casinos to pursue online gaming offerings:

Indian gaming is an industry of governmental and economic importance, benefitting both Indian nations and their surrounding local economies

Since the passage of IGRA in 1988, tribal gaming has assumed an important role in supporting jobs and economic opportunity for many Indian nations. New York alone has twelve Indian gaming facilities that bring more than $461 million a year in gaming-related payments to the state, according to a recent study by the American Gaming Association.

Moreover, in 2018 those same facilities generated more than $2.1 billion in combined sales. Profits enjoyed by tribes must, by law, be used for the tribe’s general welfare, ensuring that revenue generated from Indian gaming operations serves tribal communities. That revenue also enables tribal casinos to create jobs and support local businesses in areas that might otherwise be economically depressed. As sports betting expands on mobile platforms, leaving Indian gaming operations out of the equation would mean imposing a competitive disadvantage, directly impacting tribal government programs as well as local non-Indian communities.

Advances in technology, including the proliferation of mobile platforms for gaming, produce substantial opportunities for revenue and economic growth. Tribes must have the opportunity to benefit equally from such technological advancements.

Likewise, economic obstacles for tribes hinder the broader economy.

If tribes are blocked from mobile sports betting operations, commercial operators, as well as states, may be negatively affected. For example, as part of their gaming agreements with the state, tribes have exclusive gaming rights in large swaths of New York. Tribes pay millions of dollars to the state annually in exchange to enjoy zones of exclusivity, which include much of upstate New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Oswego and Cortland.

Allowing only commercial entities to establish online gaming would violate the agreements New York made with its gaming tribes, unfairly disadvantage tribes, and potentially limit access to online gaming for many New York residents.

Further, in the event commercial operations were to accept wagers from within those zones, tribes could limit or completely omit payments to the state. As a result, if tribes were excluded from statewide mobile sports betting the state would experience large blackout zones or lose out on millions in annual revenue, neither of which is an attractive outcome.

Sovereign tribal nations should not be subject to unfair regulation.

Limiting tribal participation in mobile sports betting would reduce competition and actively disadvantage tribal communities. Any person betting on sports with a mobile device would place bets on platforms created only by commercial casinos, taking economic momentum away from tribal communities. Across the country, the gaming industry has been a crucial source of capital for several Indian nations, and as tribes look to diversify their economies, state and federal governments must ensure equal opportunity to continue to grow.

Laws limiting tribes’ ability to compete in the online gaming space prevents economic growth and restricts tribal self-sufficiency, which is contrary to the goals of federal policymaking for the last 40 years or more. Absent a change in federal law and policy, I hope states will continue to consider and respect the important role that gaming plays in tribal economies and surrounding communities, and take appropriate action that will not unfairly hinder tribes from competing in gaming innovations.

Sarah Walters is Of Counsel, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. She is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Walters has served at the Department of the Interior, the National Indian Gaming Commission, and as an attorney at the Department of Justice.