The presidents of two Colorado Indian tribes are asking the Legislature to correct the disparity in sports betting

The presidents of two Colorado Indian tribes asked the Legislature in speeches at the Capitol on Wednesday to change the state’s sports betting laws so they can cash in on the multibillion-dollar industry.

The presidents said in-person sports betting was allowed at the tribe’s respective casinos — the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc and the Southern Ute Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio — but the tribes were unable to offer online sports betting like other casinos in the state.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart and Southern Ute Chairman Melvin Baker said neither tribe was consulted when the 2019 Legislature put a measure on that year’s ballot, Proposition DD, asking voters to approve sports betting.

“They never even talked to us,” Baker told The Colorado Sun.

Southern Ute President Melvin Baker, left, and Ute Mountain Ute Manuel Heart pose for a photo at the Colorado Capitol after speaking with state lawmakers Wednesday in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Heart said there are conflicts between state and federal law. Under federal law, tribes are required to use gambling revenue for tribal services. According to DD’s proposal, the revenue from the tax on sports betting is collected by the state, and most of it is earmarked for water-related projects. Tribes do not pay state taxes on their gaming revenue.

“Time is money,” Heart said. “And since this was passed in 2019, we’ve lost so much money on sports betting.”

Heart added that he wants the state to make an exception that would allow tribes to use sports betting tax revenue for tribal water projects. “We have our own water problems,” he said.

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Heart and Baker delivered speeches in the Legislature on Wednesday in line with the 2022 bill that offered tribes the opportunity to address state lawmakers on an annual basis for the first time. They asked the Colorado General Assembly to keep tribal issues in mind when working on policy.

“We can’t always agree on every issue, but sometimes it’s better to disagree and work together,” Baker said. “Cooperation and the will to work together makes us all stronger.”

Since sports betting began in Colorado on May 1, 2020, more than $8 billion has been wagered within the state, generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

The governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the nonpartisan Legislative Council staff project that sports betting tax revenue will reach as much as $24 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, which began July 1. Of that money, $22.5 million would go to the Colorado Water Plan, a project aimed at making sure Colorado has enough water for its growing population amid climate change-induced drought.

The state collected about $12.4 million in sports betting taxes in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended June 30, of which about $11.4 million will go to the water plan.

Bryce Cook, chief economist for OSBP, said the reason for the big increase in predictions is that the Legislature passed a law this year limiting the number of free bets sports betting operators can offer starting Jan. 1. (Colorado imposes a 10% tax on net casino revenues from sports betting. A free bet generates no revenue.)

“We’re asking you to address it this session through legislation, correcting the inequity,” Baker said.

A fix might be possible. Several state lawmakers told The Sun on Wednesday they were interested in finding a solution, but acknowledged the remedy could be complicated. The issue of sports betting sits at the crossroads of state, federal and tribal law.

It’s also possible that a statewide ballot measure will be needed to remedy the situation under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which requires voter approval for many tax changes.

State agencies have also been exploring a rulemaking solution that would not require legislative or vote approval.

“We have no comment at this time and typically do not comment on pending legislation or legislative proposals other than official testimony on the bill and/or fiscal notes,” said Meghan Tanis, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Gaming.

Heart told The Sun that the tribes want the sports betting gap to be fixed to increase their future revenue.

“Fossil fuels are running out,” Heart said, explaining that’s where Ute Mountain Ute gets most of its funding. “So where do we get our income from? Right now, for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, the casino is one of our main sources of income.”

Heart added: “We appreciate the state’s efforts. They tried to find a solution, but we couldn’t 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.”

Former state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, worked on the legislation that put the DD proposal on the floor. She also sponsored a 2022 bill asking tribal leaders to address the Legislature. She said she had never heard the tribe’s concerns about sports betting before.

“This is a perfect example of why (addresses) are important,” she said.

Tribal leaders asked lawmakers in their speeches to consider several other issues, including reintroducing wolves to western Colorado, which voters approved in 2020 and will begin in 2024.

“These wolves are considered sacred to the native tribes and our ecosystem. And at the same time, they are a threat to ranchers, property and livestock,” Heart said, demanding that the state respect the sovereignty of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe if it launches its own wolf management plan.

Heart also said he wants to see tribal history taught in Colorado schools.

The 2023 legislative session in Colorado began on Monday. It lasts until the beginning of May.

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