SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources last week voted not to support proposed legislation that sought to create a state gaming commission, a decision that law enforcement officials say could hamper the administration of the state’s gaming laws.
Wyoming has seen an influx of video gaming terminals amid an uncertain regulatory environment, prompting questions as to how the machines should be monitored under the state’s gambling laws.
Last year, former State Attorney General Peter Michael declared some video skill games illegal after tests determined the games were primarily games of chance.
Since that decision, operators stopped using the machines Michael deemed illegal and implemented new machines that, they argue, comply with state law.
But some have requested the state create a gaming commission to verify the industry’s assertion.
Law enforcement officials say local departments have neither the expertise nor the resources to effectively monitor gaming machines, while representatives of gaming machine owners and operators argue a gaming commission would place stifling regulations on a budding industry.
During the committee meeting last week, Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Byron Oedekoven told the committee local law enforcement in Wyoming is “woefully inadequate” when it comes to conducting gaming investigations.
In an interview with The Press, Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said conducting effective investigations into gaming machines requires niche skills that most local law enforcement officers do not possess. But without a gaming commission, Thompson said those local officers will be tasked with initiating and conducting those investigations.
“Now that the state is not taking on any interest in forming a gaming commission, then it falls on local jurisdictions to determine whether there is a device that might be a gambling device in their community and then somehow testing that device to see if it meets the statutory definition of a gambling device,” Thompson said.
Determining whether a machine is a gambling device means deciding whether the game is a game of chance or a game of skill. Those definitions can get murky, especially for law enforcement officers who aren’t experts at making those distinctions.
Games of skill are exempt from gambling laws in Wyoming. Thompson explained that the state made an allowance for skill games with events like rodeo in mind, where a participant pays an entry-fee for a chance at a larger pay-out, but whether a participant wins that “wager” depends on their skill.
Often, though, owners of gaming terminals will insist they are allowing patrons to wager on games of skill. Assessing that claim can be costly and time consuming for law enforcement, especially in instances where the machines blend elements of chance and skill.
“To conduct a proper investigation takes a significant amount of money to devote to the efforts…because it would require a forensic review of the internal mechanisms of that machine to primarily determine: Is it a game of chance or a game of skill?” Oedekoven told the committee.
And because many of the gaming terminals popping up across the state are digital — that is, they run on what amounts to a computer program — proprietors can have them reprogrammed and argue that the reprogramming reduced the element of chance in the game, which means law enforcement has to restart its investigation.
Katherine Wilkinson — a lobbyist for Wyoming Skills LLC, which represents businesses that operate gaming equipment — told the committee she believed a gaming commission would be overkill.
“We are self-regulated at this point,” Wilkinson told the committee. “With this proposal that has been put forward by this committee, we do feel it that is an unfair advantage to those existing industries that are already regulated.”
Other forms of gambling in the state are regulated by agencies like the Parimutuel Commission or the Lottery Commission and Wilkerson told lawmakers that the regulations placed on those forms of gambling may not translate to regulating gaming machines.
She characterized the creation of a gaming commission as subjecting gaming terminal operators to “rules and regulations created by another industry.”
“We would like the opportunity to be a little more established in the market and see what problems and the areas need to be regulated,” Wilkinson said. “We are not opposed to regulation; however, we do not believe this is the correct vehicle to move forward to do that regulation.”
Though committee members voted not to support the bill that would have established a gaming commission, their decision was motivated in part by the fact that the upcoming legislative session is a budget session, a shorter session that focuses primarily on the state’s budget for the next biennium.
Lawmakers did not rule out revisiting the issue in the future.