Conflicting reports and opinions about gambling laws in Wisconsin create more questions than answers. As in every legal matter, consultation with an attorney is the best way to clarify the meaning of legislative wording. The state’s general guidelines allow for promotional contests, bingo, and raffles for charity. Changes during the late 1980’s brought legalized pari-mutuel betting and a state lottery that raises revenue for the relief of taxpayers. Since the 1990’s, the Wisconsin government has honored agreements with tribes from eleven separate Native American reservations permitting full, regulated casinos and other gaming sources in accordance with federal legislation. Gambling in most other forms, however, is not permissible in the Badger State. While participants are guilty of a misdemeanor, those who conduct or profit from unlicensed wagering can be charged with a felony.
These clearly defined rules, however, apply only to brick-and-mortar betting establishments. Online sites that offer a variety of gambling options lie in a gray area. The controversy focuses on the state’s legal definition of a bet. Statute 945.01 describes it as an agreement between parties to risk winning or losing something valuable during an activity that is “dependent upon chance” even if it involves some skill. Although the Wisconsin decrees specify numerous forms of unacceptable offenses ranging from bookmaking to the use of gambling devices, they each refer to either the placing of bets or the dependence on chance as the basis of the unlawful activity. No direct definition is given for gambling.
Many people see flexibility in the language of the legislation, particularly when they compare it to the laws of other states. They think the Wisconsin statutes forbid only games in which “chance” is the dominant factor. This interpretation suggests a very loose protocol for determining which forms of staking are actually illegal in the state. Of course, those who oppose the decriminalization of gambling believe in a much less compromising translation. Some online sites refuse to accept players from Wisconsin, while others encourage their participation.
The laws on the books are not fully enforced; in spite of government restrictions, gambling continues to grow in popularity among Wisconsinites. Poker is especially loved and is often tolerated. With the national trend moving toward legalized online gambling, a strong possibility exists that state senators and representatives will soon lay the groundwork for a sizable change. A federal move to support online betting in Wisconsin could legalize the activity without the input of voters. The issue’s most influential group is perhaps the local Native American tribes who currently control the largest operating facilities in the state. If they choose to provide the resources for a campaign favoring regulated online gambling, then a fundamental shift in public opinion and legal terminology will likely occur.