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Our View: Sports betting should benefit Utes

Tribes missing out on tax revenues with contradictory laws

Sports betting could be the way to water.

Last Wednesday, Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart and Southern Ute Chairman Melvin Baker addressed a joint session of the state Legislature, asking lawmakers to change the 2019 sports betting law so tribes can also benefit from the multibillion dollar industry. And rightly so.

Federal, state and tribal laws intersect – and conflict – on sports betting, leaving tribes without a fair share of tax revenues. For the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, in particular, revenues that could mean a longtime-coming project realized – water delivered from Lake Nighthorse to Towaoc.

Now’s the time to act and rectify this situation during this legislative session. It’s not just federal and state laws that lawmakers need to consider. We have tribal laws, too.

Currently, in-person sports betting is allowed at the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc and the Southern Ute Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio, with online betting through the Southern Ute casino’s sportsbook.

Neither tribes’ sportsbooks are state-licensed and sports betting isn’t addressed in tribal gaming compacts with Colorado. Tribes are unable to meet requirements of the current state law. Not meeting requirements means they can’t benefit like other casinos do.

Under federal law, tribes must use gambling proceeds for tribal services. Under Proposition DD, the measure that became law in 2019, 10% of sports betting tax revenues are collected by the state and earmarked for water projects. Tribes do not pay state taxes on gaming revenue.

This is contradictory to the arrangement and sovereignty of the Ute tribes.

This approach puts “a state above what a tribe is,” Heart said. “States should not dictate to us as businesses, but respect us as sovereign tribal nations.”

Heart is asking the state to make an exception that would allow the tribes to earmark sports betting tax revenues for tribal water projects.

More than $8 billion has been wagered since sports betting began in Colorado in May 2020, generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Sports betting is a wildly popular cash cow. The Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the Legislative Council Staff project that sports betting tax revenues will be up to $24 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, which began July 1. Of that, $22.5 million will go toward the Colorado Water Plan, aimed at ensuring enough water for our state.

“Time is money,” Heart said. “And since this has been passed in 2019, we’ve lost that much money with sports betting.

“Tribes were not consulted on the language in the legislation.”

Heart and Baker are right to request a solution that works within their sovereign governments. We appreciated their commanding presence on the floor of the House chamber.

According to Heart, sports betting tax revenues wouldn’t even have to pertain to water projects. But water, of course, is a priority. Particularly, the 16,000-acre feet of water in Lake Nighthorse that belongs to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe with no delivery system to Towaoc.

“We’re a sovereign nation,” he said. "We have every right to it. We should have the same opportunity to utilize sports betting. We have this red tape to follow a law passed from voters. Voters were not consulted either.“

These sports betting tax revenues, along with funding through the 2022 infrastructure law, could position the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to finally secure water it needs for the future.

Fixing the sports betting law may prove complicated. Under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a statewide ballot measure may be needed. Still, we want to see state lawmakers put their heads together to make the situation equitable so tribal governments can benefit from this booming sports betting industry as well.