Tribal gaming revenues in Arizona slipped a bit last quarter over the same time a year earlier, the first time that's happened in more than two years.
New figures Monday from the state Department of Gaming put the amount of profits shared with the state for the first three months of the year at just shy of $24.1 million. That compares with nearly $24.3 million last year.
Individual tribes do not publicize their profits. And the figures of how much they made, while shared with the Gaming Department, are not public.
But they are required under the terms of a 2002 voter-approved law to give the state a share of what they have made. And those figures, which are public, become the best indicator of trends in how much people are plunking into slot machines and laying down at blackjack tables, the two most popular forms of tribal gaming in the state.
"I was a little surprised to see this decrease,'' said Valerie Spicer, director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association. Spicer said the feedback she has been getting from tribes and their casino operators is that gaming revenues have been "pretty stable, pretty consistent.''
But Spicer said she would not consider a 1 percent drop to be alarming.
That's also the take of state Gaming Director Mark Brnovich whose agency oversees tribal-run casinos.
"I think we shouldn't read too much it into it,'' he said. And Brnovich said it's premature to speculate whether this is a blip or a trend.
Why this is happening is a different question.
The new year saw the expiration of a temporary cut in payroll taxes. The net result is people are seeing less money in their paychecks.
At the same time, the federal budget impasse and the sequestration that followed has led to less federal spending but, potentially more important, greater uncertainty.
Spicer said both those things "make people a little more conscientious'' about how they are spending their money.
Brnovich said the key is remembering that gaming, like other forms of entertainment, is largely dependent on discretionary income.
"When there's economic uncertainty, people have less discretionary income, there's going to be less gambling,'' he said.
Tribes were given exclusive rights to operate casinos in Arizona in exchange for sharing 1 percent of the first $25 million of "new win'' each fiscal year. That is what is left after gamblers collect their winnings but before other expenses.
Arizona gets 3 percent of the next $50 million, 6 percent of the next $25 million, and 8 percent of anything that's more than $100 million a year.
That sliding scale means that the amount paid each quarter will depend on when each tribe's fiscal year begins. That makes comparisons of tribal gaming revenues from one quarter to the next not particularly helpful, versus a comparison with the same period a year earlier.
Half of the $24.18 million the tribes paid to the state for the latest quarter goes to education.
More than $6 million goes to trauma and emergency services.
The Wildlife Conservation Fund and the State Tourism Fund each get $1.7 million.
About $482,000 is earmarked for helping people with gambling addiction. And the state Gaming Department keeps $2 million for its expenses in regulating the tribal casinos.