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How Do Gaming Commissions in the United States Work

In the United States, gambling is a complex and sometimes controversial mix of laws at both the federal and state level. While gambling is legal, federal legislation can restrict operations and states regulate the practice with distinct laws. This makes for a lot of inconsistencies from state to state.

With the help of gaming commissions, states can better keep track of and regulate these inconsistencies. Also called gaming control boards, gaming commissions are government or authority agencies tasked with various legal and administrative responsibilities. They can be as specific or general as needed, and in the US the number of gaming commissions is just as vast as the range of laws that make up the gambling landscape.

The Role of the Board

Gaming commissions usually have the same general duties no matter what jurisdiction they serve. Establishing rules of casino games, issuing licensing, accounting and auditing, security, and fair play all fall under the purview of a gaming control board. Often, the gaming commission may be split into more particular sub-sets or exist as just one specific type of commission. In Arkansas, the gaming commission exists within the Department of Finance and Administration and is headed by the racing commission. Until recently, Wyoming only had a pari-mutuel commission.

Sometimes commissions will enforce their own regulations and oversee civil cases, serving as a kind of tribunal body. Other times they will have separate divisions or associated branches that will do this for them.

Licensing Power

For operators, licensing is one of the most important jobs that gaming commissions do because the approval or denial of a license application is the very first step in establishing business in a jurisdiction. Applicants typically have to share a great deal of personal information and show that they have integrity and good standing. The gaming commission then has to comb over the information and perform an investigation to validate that the applicant would be an appropriate candidate before they approve the application. For individuals who have a reputation or receive enough complaints, the commission has the power to revoke their licenses and even ban them.

The licensing process is typically more difficult than applying for other government issued-licenses, partially because it is meant to discourage people involved in organized crime from being able to apply. In 1959, Nevada passed the Gaming Control Act to start dealing with the mob presence in state casinos. The act formed the Nevada Gaming Commission, one of the only agencies of its kind in the US, and helped apply new policies to reshape standards in the state. The administrative right to investigate gaming license applications was one of the original powers invested in the Nevada Gaming Commission by the Gaming Control Act.

Native Gaming Commissions

For gambling that takes place on tribal lands, there are a different set of laws that apply to gaming commissions and regulatory agencies. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was created in 1988 as a response to a Supreme Court case that ruled states couldn’t prosecute gaming conducted on tribal lands (California v. Cabazon). In tandem with the IGRA, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) was created as an independent regulatory agency with members that work closely with tribal gaming operators to provide federal oversight and a better understanding of the industry.

Tribal Advocates

Before the NIGC, a non-profit organization called the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) was created in 1985 with the intent to protect Native interests and culture in the booming tribal gaming market. Similar to the NIGC, NIGA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and aims to work with the federal government to build better policies.

The NIGA doesn’t have a hand in creating or enforcing Tribal gaming commissions or regulations, but they do advocate for over 180 Tribal nations, emphasizing what the IGRA would echo years later. Tribes have a right to self-sufficiency and sovereign authority through gaming industries on Tribal lands.


Because of the forced relocation of native peoples by the US government to parts of the country that were deemed undesirable, the demand for sustainable revenue on tribal lands is high. The IGRA recognizes that demand and the revenue and economic support that gaming could provide. It states that tribes have the exclusive rights to regulate gaming on tribal lands, and although the act does give the FBI jurisdiction over Native gaming violations the investment of the agency is minimal. 

The existence of the NIGC doesn’t negate Tribal authority; tribes can still form their own gaming commissions and are encouraged to do so. Part of the function of the NIGC is to help lay out the framework of regulatory responsibilities so that tribes can more easily structure Native regulatory bodies. In that way, Tribal gaming commissions function essentially the same way state gaming commissions do.