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Gaming pays off for communities as Legislature eyes expansion

Jodie Warlow sat in Wyoming Downs on Wednesday afternoon, watching as various symbols spun across the screen. She hoped to win big.

It’s a weekly tradition for Warlow. She’ll spend half an hour to an hour trying her luck.

“I only do like $20 each time, and then I leave,” she said.

Warlow said she’s won $250 here and there. The most she’s ever hit at any one time is $650.

Before historic horse racing machines were legal in Wyoming, Warlow would go to Deadwood, South Dakota, to gamble. She wishes they would’ve been legal a long time ago.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Wyoming Downs recently made history as a Gillette man won big after placing a $3 bet and winning $490,685.58.

“Keep our profits here instead of going to South Dakota,” she said about the economic benefit of the betting machines. “It’s good revenue.”

Strangely enough, games of chance (or skill, as some would rather claim) are a growth industry in Wyoming, not only for those who run the businesses, but for the governments that are increasingly relying on their tax revenue.

A growth industry

During a time when other revenues in Wyoming seem to be on a steady decline, gambling has only increased in popularity each year.

A total of $2.1 billion was wagered on historic horse racing in the Cowboy State, and $1.9 billion has been paid out to winners from 2017 through the first seven months of 2020.

Since the Wyoming Lottery’s inception in 2014, more than 5.3 million winning tickets have been sold, and about $83.3 million has been paid out to winners.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Wyoming Downs is a favorite place for locals to participate in historic horse racing.

On Feb. 5, a Gillette man won big, placing a $3 bet and winning $490,685.58, the largest historic horse racing jackpot in state history.

Sarah Pittman, a lead teller at Wyoming Downs, was there that night. She paid out the winner, who she said was “kind of speechless” when he hit the jackpot.

“I’ve never seen somebody hit that much money, obviously,” she said. “I teared up, even.”

She knew that it was Wyoming Downs’ biggest jackpot, but she didn’t know it was a Wyoming record.

Ron Doty understands the popularity of the historic horse racing. For him, the races are a chance to get away and relax, but the prospect to hit a jackpot is always nice.

“I come, like, once a month, put a hundred bucks in and see where I can go,” he said.

The most he’s won is $1,200. It was an “all right” feeling, he said. He’s won a lot more at various casinos, but “it’s always a good feeling to walk out (with) more than you walked in with. I just come to have a good time.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Ron Doty sits down for an evening of betting on digital machines at Wyoming Downs on Wednesday. Doty said he typically comes once a month with $100 in his pocket to relax and sees where it takes him.

Doty said if he ever won a half-million dollars like the recent jackpot winner did, he would still gamble on occasion.

“But I’d still do it like I always do. I wouldn’t change how I did things,” he said.

Still evolving

This past decade, legislators have worked to regulate gambling, which has turned into quite a moneymaker for the state.

As revenues from the energy industry, especially coal, continue to drop, state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, expects lawmakers to look at expanding gambling as one way to bring in more money to the state.

Historic horse racing began in 2013. The Wyoming Lottery launched in 2014. In 2020, the Wyoming Gaming Commission was created and the state began regulating skill-based amusement games.

This year, there is a bill, Senate File 56, which would continue the authorization of the skills games. It repeals the sunset date for the operation of skills games in Wyoming that was laid out in a 2020 bill. The measure passed the Senate and is going to the House.

“If they don’t affirmatively acknowledge skill games this year, they automatically go away,” Driskill said, adding that he believes it has a good chance of passing.

Legislators were “so-so” on skills games at first, he said, but have become “much more supportive” now that they see how much money is coming in.

“It’s shocking the amount of money that’s around there in gambling,” Driskill said.

In 2019, nearly $800 million was bet on historic horse racing alone, $732 million was paid out to winners and $7.9 million went to cities and counties.

In 2013, the state Legislature approved a bill that gives communities that had or have live horse racing the option to authorize historic horse racing. In fall 2015, historic horse racing machines were shut down after then-state Attorney General Peter Michael ruled they were not compliant with state law. The machines were down for 18 months but were reinstated.

There are three places in Gillette where people can bet on historic horse racing. Wyoming Downs has two locations, one on Westover Road and one in the former Mingles building, and Wyoming Horse Racing has a location in the Sundance Lounge.

As neighboring states expand their gambling options, “it starts making it a lot harder to not have it in Wyoming,” Driskill said.

“What you end up with is citizens crossing state lines to spend dollars,” he added. “If things are happening that are quasi-legal, either make them totally illegal or legalize them.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Ron Doty sits down for an evening of gambling at Wyoming Downs Wednesday evening. Doty said he typically comes once a month with $100 to relax and see where it takes him.

Show us the money

State statute dictates where the money from gambling goes.

Historic horse racing operators must pay 1% of the total amount wagered to the city and county where the machines are located. The state treasurer gets 0.25%, and 0.25% goes to the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. In 2020, $6.7 million was paid to counties and cities, and $3.93 million came in the second half of the year despite a pandemic.

In 2019, a total of $793.5 million was wagered on historic horse racing throughout the state, and 17% of that, or nearly $140 million, was wagered in Gillette. And through the first seven months of 2020, $61 million was wagered in Gillette. Both years, Gillette bet the second highest dollar amount in the state, trailing only Cheyenne.

“There was definitely a little bit of a lull (because of COVID-19), but people are pretty dedicated,” Pittman said.

In 2020, Gillette and Campbell County each received $597,308 from historic horse racing. That was despite all locations being closed from March 20 through May 8 because of the pandemic.

It was down from 2019, when the entities each got $699,414, but it’s still the second highest total ever.

From 2016-20, Gillette and Campbell County each received nearly $2.2 million, meaning about $4.4 million has gone to local government in the last five years.

The Wyoming Lottery is required to transfer at least 75% of its revenue to the state, which will distribute that to counties and municipalities based on the number of tickets sold. The quarterly transfers began in April 2016 and so far have totaled $21.5 million.

In total, Gillette’s received more than $1 million, and Campbell County has received more than half a million dollars through the lottery.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Jeremaya Holms plays a betting machine at Wyoming Downs Wednesday afternoon in Gillette.

As for skills games, 45% goes to the county and municipality where the game is located. Another 45% will go to the School Foundation Program and 10% to the Wyoming Gaming Commission. In 2020, the games brought in $1.5 million in revenue to the state. Of that, $679,370 went to counties and municipalities, $679,370 to the School Foundation Program and $150,971 to the gaming commission.

In 2020, Campbell County received $31,366 in tax revenue from the skills games, while Gillette got $18,675 and Wright saw $4,718.

“It does provide a good revenue source for us, and if it’s controlled the way it is now, I think it’s a positive. It’s a plus for our county,” said Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad.

“The gambling aspect in our community is fairly unique, it’s never been known for that. Wyoming’s always been conservative like that,” he said. “I just think it’s a thing in this community that’s going to continue to grow.”

What’s next?

While it’s a good thing that money is coming to the state, Driskill said he’s always concerned about gambling getting out of control. That’s why he pushed for the creation of the Wyoming Gaming Commission.

“It wasn’t done to promote gambling, it was done to make sure the gambling was regulated,” Driskill said.

He’s not crazy about expanding gambling in Wyoming. Other legislators are leading the charge in that area, but in his opinion, “socially, it’s not a good deal for Wyoming. There’s some impacts that go with it,” Driskill said.

But it has had a big impact economically. Some businesses have grown to depend on gambling, whether through selling lottery tickets or having skills games.

“For a convenience store that’s struggling, that could make a difference in whether they operate,” Driskill said.

Driskill doesn’t think the state Legislature will legalize online sports betting this year, but it could be happen in a few years.

“It could easily, over time, get there,” he said.

Warlow said she hopes the state legalizes slot machines next. The games have been ruled illegal because they don’t require any skill by the user, but she said a diversified gaming environment is “more entertaining.”

It’s unknown whether lawmakers will expand regulations enough to make that happen, but for now Warlow’s happy with what Wyoming has. If she ever hits a jackpot, don’t expect to hear from her. She’ll keep it a secret.

“I wouldn’t want anybody to know,” she said, because once it’s known you’re a winner, “the friends come out of the woodwork.”

Thunder Basin High School Science Bowl A Team members Dani Jones, from left, Joshua Walker, Chandler Nannemann, Robby Adams and Luke Tracey pose for a photo in Erin Fulton’s science classroom at TBHS on Wednesday. The team led Thunder Basin to victory at the Wyoming Regional Science Bowl last weekend.

Clifton Strawn tests out the flow of the trails system as volunteers work to refine the surface cyclists will be using during a fieldwork day at Red Rock Trails last summer.

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College district bill advances, but not without concerns

A bill advancing a vote to create a community college district for Gillette College is headed to the state Senate floor after making it through the Senate Education Committee this week.

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor, with the understanding that its sponsor, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, and committee member Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Sheridan, work together on an amendment compromising some concerns brought by Sheridan County and the Northern Wyoming Community College District.

Leading up to the vote, several committee members voiced concerns about the bill, the process that led to this point in Gillette College’s proposed split from its district and the state of funding for higher education in Wyoming as a whole.

With the bill advancing, Wasserburger and Biteman agreed to work together on a compromise to assuage some of the concerns from Sheridan County, specifically regarding the financial transition that would occur from Gillette College leaving the district.

“Breaking up is hard to do,” Biteman said. “We are on opposite sides of this. ... There are some issues that have come up that are concerns on this side of the hill as opposed to yours.”

The bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week, when the in-person legislative session meets in Cheyenne.

In a letter to legislators last week, NWCCD President Walter Tribley asked for $3 million per year for Sheridan College during Gillette College’s potential accreditation process for up to five years.

In return, Tribley said NWCCD would give Gillette College the revenue it generates through enrollment.

“Without this assurance, a bill to create a new college district would irreparably harm one of the mainstays of education in Wyoming, Sheridan College,” Tribley claimed.

Although Wasserburger called the request “premature” and said the $3 million ask was too high, he outlined a compromise. He suggested an incremental decrease of the funding Sheridan College would lose based on a three-year rolling average, similar to K-12 models designed to account for districts with downsized enrollment.

Tribley told the News Record on Thursday that although his request became a moot point with the committee’s decision Wednesday, having those conversations sooner rather than later still helps ensure the stability of the district and its students in the event of a split.

“It’s a compromise I’m OK with,” Tribley said. “I don’t think it’s best-case scenario for either institution, but (it’s worth it) if it means we get a new Gillette College and it gets to be brought forward in a strong manner and we stabilize our district.”

With that as a loose framework, Biteman said it could serve as a starting point for a possible amendment.

“I think it gets us going in the right direction,” he said at the meeting. “I think that’s what we’re looking for over here, having that conversation now as opposed to later to ameliorate some concerns and heartburn over what could possibly happen.”

Also in the current bill, the district is called the Gillette College Community College District. Because of the redundancy, Wasserburger suggested calling it the Gillette College District, to which Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, proposed Gillette Community College District. A new name will be decided and added to the bill as an amendment.

Committee concerns

At the meeting, committee members also discussed the future of funding for higher education in Wyoming and questioned how the potential new district could affect that.

“We’re currently in a budget and revenue crisis right now and we’re struggling with all of our higher education in the state, and I think the impetus for the desire of Gillette College to separate is based on the fact cuts came and those cuts were painful,” Rothfuss said.

He added that “it’s just who has what under their ground” and that Campbell County having the money to pay for its own problems does not help the rest of the community college districts solve theirs.

“We need a comprehensive solution that solves for all of our higher education systems and it almost seems like this solution gets Gillette to the point where you’ve got yours, and you’ve got it for less than 2 mills, and everyone else can kind of go pound sand,” Rothfuss said.

If the new district does find its way to a ballot, there will be a vote to elect a new board of trustees authorized to levy a special tax “not to exceed 4 mills.” Wasserburger and the Campbell County contingent has said that it could fund the college with fewer than 4 mills, putting the unofficial target around 2 mills.

A recent opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office found that if the new district levied fewer than 4 mills, it would not qualify for state funding, but could later levy 4 mills to qualify for state appropriation.

Despite the rift in wants from the Sheridan and Campbell County sides of the issue, Tribley reframed the potential split as the birth of a new district rather than a divorce.

However, Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Laramie, said that it still feels more like a divorce, and a messy one at that.

“I’ve got a lot more thinking to do on this particular issue,” she said, before voting to push it to the Senate floor.

“Going forward, this shouldn’t be the path if we’re trying to establish new community colleges across Wyoming,” she said. “There should be a glide path, a hand-off, not a five-year gap in how we’re treating students. There’s got to be a better way.”

Throughout the more than 50-year figurative marriage between Sheridan and Gillette colleges, it is not the first time a split has been brought up.

“This issue has been on the table formally three times going back to the mid-1980s,” Tribley said. “Maybe that’s too long of a gestation period for a birth.”

Local support

A contingency of local support from Campbell County spoke at the Zoom meeting Wednesday.

Colleen Heeter, Campbell County Health CEO, spoke in support of the new college district, emphasizing the importance of the hospital system’s relationship with the college as a pipeline for new nurses.

Robert Palmer, who is on the Gillette College Advisory Board and led the task force that championed the Gillette College application through its process leading up to the Legislature, sat alongside Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King, who both voiced their support for the bill.

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell called again for legislators to allow the people of Campbell County to decide the fate of their own district in a public vote.

Although the push for a new district has advanced again, more obstacles remain.

“We have an industry that is right now under duress and it makes it even more of an importance that we get to make our own decisions and chart our own path,” Bell said.

“We are going to make (decisions in) the best interest of Campbell County, and when we do that, that’s going to be in the best interest of Wyoming also,” he said.

Man with history of stealing vehicles accused of two more thefts

A man who was sentenced to up to seven years in prison for stealing a semitruck and driving it across two counties in 2008 now has two more felony theft charges for allegedly stealing two pickups in Campbell County and in one of those cases, leading law enforcement on a chase that caused damage at Rawhide coal mine.

David Lee Dykes, 51, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in District Court to two counts of theft and one count of destruction of property, all felonies.

His probation also has been revoked on another charge from 2016 involving the theft of a Chevy pickup he was found driving that had been reported stolen. In that case, police noted his familiarity with the unauthorized use law, and found that he had been convicted of it three times, and had been involved in 11 stolen vehicle reports, according to court documents.

The latest cases

Dykes was arrested Jan. 21 after deputies found him driving a 2016 GMC Sierra 2500, which had been reported stolen earlier that morning from Firesteel Well Service. There had been reports of the truck in the Recluse area, and deputies responding there saw the truck going south on Highway 14-16, according to reports.

During a pursuit, Dykes sped as high as 79 mph in a 70 mph zone. Spike strips set out by the Wyoming Highway Patrol about 15 miles farther south connected with the driver’s side front tire, but he dodged the next set of spikes and went off the road, according to an affidavit of probable cause. The front tire then blew and was completely on its rim.

Dykes reportedly drove on the wrong side of the road for a short distance, then went into the ditch before driving through a locked gate at the Rawhide mine, which was about 27 miles from the beginning of the pursuit.

He drove around the mine at speeds of 30-50 mph, driving toward haul trucks and nearly hitting them, according to the affidavit. He also allegedly drove over a 2-inch electrical cable.

At that point, the deputies were concerned that the man could get back onto the highway and drive into town, Undersheriff Quentin Reynolds said. A deputy got permission to immobilize the pickup by driving into it and pushing it into a dirt berm, and he did so.

Dykes reportedly got out of the pickup and began running up a hill on foot before stopping and being arrested.

Damage to the stolen Sierra was estimated at about $50,000, and damage to the deputy’s vehicle is more than $10,000, Reynolds said.

The amount of damage to the coal mine’s electrical cable was unknown at the time the affidavit was written, but the inspection for the cable was estimated to cost $1,000.

Two days after Dykes’ arrest, a man called the sheriff’s office to report that Dykes had left a Dodge 1500 pickup on his property on Warrior Road. He knew that Dykes had driven it and left it there early Jan. 21 and wanted to make sure the pickup wasn’t stolen, according to an affidavit.

Deputies traced the pickup to a man who had left it in the parking lot of Precision Well Service in October 2019 because he didn’t have room on his property to park it. He had left the key inside.

The pickup had been found abandoned a month earlier, but when the man went to retrieve it, it was gone and he assumed it had been towed.

The man, who had worked with Dykes, had not given him permission to use the truck.

The deputy tried to talk to Dykes in jail, where he was being held for the Jan. 21 theft, but Dykes didn’t want to talk with him. The deputy checked with the booking officer about whether Dykes’ property when he entered the jail included a Dodge key, and it had.

When the pickup’s owner picked up the truck Jan. 27, that key fit the Dodge 1500, according to court documents. The pickup was valued at between $1,868 and $3,503.

A jury trial has been set for July 6 in those cases.

Past cases

Dykes was sentenced to three to seven years in prison for leading deputies on a high-speed chase through two counties in August 2008 after stealing a semitruck from Wyoming Welding in Gillette.

The pursuit began near Edgerton in Natrona County when the semi clipped the back of a pickup. The chase continued in Johnson and Natrona counties, and lasted an hour and a half before ending near Kaycee. Officers had to use spike strips to stop the semi.

Toward the end of the chase, the semi’s front tires were riding on their rims. The pursuit reached speeds of 80 mph. Even after the tires had been flattened, the semi was clocked at 60 mph, authorities said.

At the time, Dykes’ attorney said his client stole the semi on a suicidal impulse. He thought by leading deputies on a lengthy pursuit, he could provoke them into shooting him to death.

Dykes told the court he was ashamed of his actions and that he wasn’t in his right mind when he stole the semi.

Dykes was back in court in December 2016 after Gillette police officers at another call at Cam-plex Park saw a black Chevy pickup go into the parking lot, then immediately leave when the driver saw the police car. The officer thought it was suspicious, especially when the truck went through the Festival of Lights at 2:15 a.m. when the lights were off, so he followed it.

About the same time, a call came in that a Chevy pickup — exactly matching the one he was following — had been stolen from Lakeside Liquors. Dykes finally stopped two blocks after the officer activated his lights and said he had been told he could borrow the truck. The owner, who had left the truck running, said he hadn’t given anyone permission to use it.

The affidavit noted that the officer was surprised by Dykes’ familiarity with the unauthorized use law. He found that Dykes had been convicted of it three times and had been involved in 11 stolen vehicle reports, according to court documents.

Dykes later pleaded guilty to the theft of that vehicle as part of a plea agreement in which charges of concealing stolen property and unauthorized use were dismissed. Those charges stemmed from a report from April 6, 2017, that someone had stolen a Suburban from the Little Powder School, then returned it and left in a silver Ford pickup. He was arrested later in the morning in Powder River County, Montana, in a $15,000 truck taken from Viking Enterprises.

Dykes got a suspended sentence for the theft of the Chevy pickup and called the plea agreement “a gift from God” to be able to turn his life around.

District Judge Thomas W. Rumpke said a suspended sentence that included time at the Volunteers of America community corrections program seemed like “a reasonable solution.”

“What’s going to motivate you is whether or not beginning your fifth decade on Earth you want to have your freedom or not,” Rumpke said at Dykes’ May 6, 2019 sentencing.