Proposal Submitted for Slot Machines Aboard Alaskan Ferries

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A view of a boreal forest trees in front of Alaska Range mountains during the snowmelt season on May 5, 2023 near Delta Junction, Alaska. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP

Electronic casino gambling could be coming to the Last Frontier if a recently submitted bill clears the many hurdles it faces. If accepted, the bill would install Vegas-style slot machines on Alaskan ferries that travel to international waters.

Let’s examine the key elements of the proposal and assess whether the bill has the potential to expand opportunities for sports betting in Alaska and online sportsbooks.

Revenue Generator

Alaska is one of just five states that does not allow the sale of Powerball tickets or any other interstate lottery. The closest one you will find to anything resembling gambling in the nation’s 49th state is called Chase the Ace Lottery. It can only be purchased at locations within Alaska, as well as pull-tab parlors that benefit Native American tribes.

Therefore, any proposal to expand gaming in Alaska is met with immediate skepticism. Undoubtedly, it has a long road to travel before being considered for legislative approval. However, Representative Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, remains undaunted and put forth a proposal that would allow slot machines and electronic games on Alaskan ferries that reach international waters, which begin three miles from the coast.

Joseph Lurtsema, an aide to Representative Sumner, spoke of House Bill 197 and stated, “It will be a win for this Legislature, a win for our ferry system, and most importantly, a win for Alaska.”

Cody Rice, an aide to the Alaska House’s coalition majority, projected the bill “would potentially raise in the order of $20 million or more per year, substantially offsetting the Alaska Marine Highway System’s net costs.”

Not So Fast

These three-mile gambling boats are fairly common throughout coastal states and supply a revenue stream for state, local, and municipal tax coffers.

However, Alaska is a different breed altogether and the bill has already been met with obstacles.

One of the issues stems from the routes the ferries take, many of which do not travel beyond the three-mile exclusionary limit where U.S. law cedes to international law. “There’s only a few routes that this would be applicable for,” said Craig Tornga, marine director of the ferry system.

Yet, Rice suggested charting a course for a majority or all routes to travel beyond the three-mile limit, allowing passengers access to the slot machines. He even spoke of adding routes to bolster what would be the state’s newest revenue stream.

Raising Concerns

Tonga voiced his concern that the boats are not equipped to house so many electronic devices. Should the ferries be retrofitted with upgraded electrical capacity, they would require approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping.

Many of the state’s ferries were built well over 50 years ago with Tonga stating, “That was back in the day where you didn’t have outlets for charging phones and plugging in computers. And so, there’s a little bit of work to do on this. What are the requirements?” he said.

An even bigger hurdle to climb exists from the Native American tribes, whose lobbyists have previously doused any previous expansion to Alaska’s barren gambling landscape. Revenue derived from the pull-tab parlors benefits indigenous tribes as well as non-profit organizations, and they fear the prospect of introducing slot machines could cannibalize some of those profits.

Bookmakers Review will continue to monitor this story and update our readers as events unfold.