Tribes put the brakes on state's lottery expansion

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PHOENIX — Plans for what could be an instant, state-run numbers game hit a snag Wednesday as an attorney for the state’s largest tribe warned lawmakers the proposal would blow up a decades-old agreement.

Steven Hart told members of the Senate Government Committee that the 2002 compacts between tribes and the state give them the exclusive right to operate casino-style games. In exchange, he said, the tribes share about $100 million a year in profits.

But Hart, who represents the Navajo Nation, said all that is contingent on the state not expanding into areas now strictly limited to reservations. And he said a plan by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to have the state operate keno games — perhaps multiple times an hour — violates that deal.

Borrelli, for his part, said he doesn’t read the compacts that way.

But he agreed to withdraw his legislation from consideration, at least for the time being. He told Capitol Media Services, however, he may try again later this session.

Borrelli said he wants to do generate more money for state and local governments.

The Arizona Lottery operates a variety of games, from instant “scratch” tickets to various “pick” games, where those hoping for a win choose their numbers, buy a ticket and then wait for the drawing.

There are now several versions of those pick games, including one called “All or Nothing” that actually has two drawings each and every day.

“I want a game that’s played more frequently,” Borrelli said.

How frequently?

SB 1059 does not say. But it opens the door to having drawings multiple times an hour.

Hart said that’s where Borrelli’s proposal runs afoul of the gaming compacts.

He said it’s one thing to buy a “pick” ticket and then wait for the numbers to be drawn. By contrast, Hart said, keno is set up so that someone can buy a ticket at a bar, restaurant or store and then simply wait there to have the winning numbers flashed onto a screen.

Hart, who worked for then-Gov. Jane Hull when she negotiated the compacts that eventually were approved by voters, said that violates a provision against the state running “monitor games.”

Borrelli’s measure also faces opposition from another, completely independent quarter.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said her organization is opposed to any new forms of gaming and separating people from their money. But she told lawmakers that this is more than a question of morals and values.

“Gambling in all of its forms, including the Lottery, is a form of economic predation,” she said, essentially becoming a form of “forced wealth redistribution,” taking a higher percentage of the income of the poor than those more well off.

But Herrod also worried about how a keno game, with its multiple-per-hour drawings, will play out, suggesting it could lead to “miniature casinos” popping up around the state in bars and restaurants.

“Will moms and dads take their children to a favorite restaurant and have video terminals with keno at their tables?” she asked lawmakers.

Borrelli said he remains convinced that the new game -- and the millions of dollars it would generate for the state -- is not only legal but also a good idea. The senator said he will weigh how the legislation might be altered to get those revenues without generating opposition.

No date has been set for a future hearing.