Alaska: Proposal to allow slot machines aboard ferries faces hurdles in first legislative hearing

Alaska: Proposal to allow slot machines aboard ferries faces hurdles in first legislative hearing
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Aproposal by Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, to introduce slot machines and electronic gambling on Alaska Marine Highway System ships met with skepticism during its first hearing. The bill, aimed at generating revenue for the state-run ferry system, proposes gambling activities when the ships are more than 3 miles off Alaska's coasts, a practice already permitted on cruise ships.

House Bill 197 seeks to replicate the financial model through which riverboat casinos raise money for states in the Lower 48 by allowing Vegas-style slot machines on ferries. "It will be a win for this Legislature, a win for our ferry system, and most importantly, a win for Alaska," said Joseph Lurtsema, an aide to Sumner.

Cody Rice, an aide to the Alaska House’s coalition majority, estimated that 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."

However, the feasibility of this proposal has been questioned. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, an advocate for the ferry system, pointed out that most ferry routes are within 3 miles of shore, limiting the applicability of the bill. Craig Tornga, marine director of the ferry system, highlighted that only a few specific routes like those to Dutch Harbor and across the Gulf of Alaska exceed the 3-mile limit, which could significantly diminish the projected revenue.

To offset that, Rice suggested rerouting sailings beyond the 3-mile line and adding new routes, speculating that some passengers might use the ferry solely for gambling purposes.

However, Tornga expressed concerns about the ferries' infrastructure, many of which date back to the 1960s and may lack the electrical capacity for numerous slot machines. He noted that significant modifications would require approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping.

Legislators also raised concerns about potential opposition from Alaska's established gambling institutions, including pull-tab parlors that benefit nonprofit organizations and Native tribes. Previous attempts to change gambling laws have faced lobbying from the pull-tab industry, as noted by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer.