For the first time since 2022, tribal leaders were invited on Jan. 11 to address CO state legislators on specific issues. This includes a subject the tribes were not consulted with when the legislature passed in 2019: Colorado sports betting.
Chairmen of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes together asked lawmakers for help with a number of issues the tribes face. Especially their current inability to jump into Colorado’s blossoming sports betting market was a primary concern.
Since CO sports betting became legal on May 1, 2020, the state has seen a handle of over $8 billion. As mentioned in The Colorado Sun article, Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute, says the tribes were left out when legislation for sports betting passed in 2019:
“Even though the tribes each operate a casino, there was no consultation with the tribes during the passage of that legislation.”
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe operates the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc. While the Southern Ute operates the Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio.
Both casinos have some forms of sports betting, but neither can offer online sports betting under current Colorado law.
State vs. federal vs. tribal law creates a complicated path forward
Federal law requires tribes to use all proceeds from gambling revenue to benefit the tribal community. Along with that, tribes do not have to pay state taxes on revenue from gambling.
Under Proposition DD, which legalized sports betting in Colorado in 2019, the state taxes 10% of all gambling revenue from state-licensed operators. Most of the collected tax revenue goes toward the Colorado Water Plan.
The chairmen are asking for a remedy to the issue in the current session through new legislation. But that may be complicated, with three sets of laws coming to a head.
Furthermore, the state would impose a tax on tribal sports gambling revenue, raising issues dealing with tribal sovereignty.
According to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a statewide vote on the issue may be needed. This law requires voter approval for most tax changes.
Currently, no solutions are in motion to rectify the sports betting issue for tribes. In The Colorado Sun article, Heart said:
“We appreciate the efforts of the state. They have tried to find a solution but we have not been able to agree on a way to move forward that protects our sovereignty. We should not be regulated as a business entity in the state of Colorado.”
However, addressing the state legislature is a positive step in the right direction.
Former state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who worked on legislation to get Proposition DD on the ballot, said at the time she was unaware of the tribes’ concerns: “This is a perfect example of why [the addresses] are important.”
Donovan sponsored the 2022 bill asking tribal leaders to address the state legislature.
Colorado sports betting would help tribes establish financial security
Heart says a solution to the tribes’ sports betting problem will help establish a brighter financial future for the tribes:
“Fossil fuels are going out. So, where do we get revenues from? Right now for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, [casinos are] one of our main sources of revenue coming in.”
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has typically relied on income from the oil and gas industry. But with climate change being a major issue, the tribe has pushed toward green energy.
The tribes would also use the potential future sports betting revenue toward their own water issues.
Other tribal issues concerns
Aside from the request to rectify the tribes’ sports betting issue, the chairpersons brought a few other subjects to the state legislature’s attention.
Currently, the tribes need funding to access rightfully owned water so it can be used. They are looking for the state’s help to build a pipeline that will run from Lake Nighthorse to Montezuma County.
Along with that, the tribes want a seat at the table regarding water planning. Currently, the state consults them, but they do not get a vote in any final decisions.
The Ute Mountain Ute opened its first K-12 charter school on their lands and is hoping to eventually build a vocational school and junior college – they need funding. The chairmen also asked for statewide school curriculums to require the history of indigenous people. Specifically, the true history and why the tribes deserve their sovereignty.
Tribal leaders also brought up the coming reintroduction of wolves to Western Colorado, the reduction of tribal hunting lands and the universal acceptance of tribal ID cards.
Baker believes the state lawmakers and the tribes can come together to solve problems the tribes face: “[Colorado] is the leader among all states when it comes to honoring the tribal-state relationship.”