Montana’s gambling laws are somewhat strange and schizophrenic. In some regards, the offer residents of their state enviable opportunities to bet while in others they seem downright draconian. The history of gambling in the state isn’t unique—in fact, it’s very similar to many other states. The early settlers enjoyed gambling and it wasn’t regulated. In the 1800’s, the state experienced a huge proliferation of independently run lotteries. Many of these lotteries were conducted with dubious ethical standards. Montana became a state in 1889 and by 1910 had banned lotteries and while they were at it every other form of gambling.
In most states, the 20th Century liberalization of gambling went like this: with horse racing the biggest sport in the country in the first half of the century parimutuel wagering was typically the first to be allowed. That would be followed by a lottery and that would be followed by incremental additions to the state’s gaming menu. A viable presence of Native American tribal gaming would usually expedite the process. In most states there’s now a lottery and a varying number of other gambling options.
Montana did everything differently. The first form of gambling to be made legal was table games via the package of the Hickey Act in 1937 which left this decision up to individual counties. That set the foundation for the state’s unique gambling industry which is predominated by hundreds of small casinos. Slots were made legal in 1945 and ruled illegal by the Montana Supreme Court five years later.
It would be fairly quiet for the next 40+ years with the only gambling legislation concerning charitable bingo and raffles both of which were legalized in 1973. In 1980, video poker machines were ruled to be covered by the existing slot machine regulations which made them illegal. In 1985, however, the Video Poker Machine Act passed which permitted up to 5 machines per bar. The per bar limit was raised to 20 in 1991 along with an unlimited number of video keno machines. The advent of multigame devices have allowed properties the ability to use space more efficiently but not to circumvent the 20 machine limit.
The result of all of the casino gaming legislation is a unique marketplace with over 300 casinos in 91 different towns. Most of these are small with 20 or fewer slot machines and a poker room. Some of these small casinos are owned by Native American tribes but there are also ten ‘full size’ tribal casinos. Five of the state’s 7 tribes have compacts with the state to allow Class III gaming which includes slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette. The remaining tribes offer Class II gaming which includes bingo and ‘bingo driven’ slot machines.
Montana also launched a lottery in 1986 with the usual games. There is one exception—Montana was one of four states specifically exempted from PASPA and that has allowed them to offer a fantasy sports (football and auto racing) based lottery game. As of yet, there hasn’t been a formal effort to launch single game wagering but given the dynamism of the state’s gambling industry that could happen at any time.