PHOENIX - If the amount of money people are willing to drop into slot machines is any indication, the Arizona economy is showing some slight signs of life.
New figures from the Arizona Department of Gaming show that the tribes took in nearly $1.7 billion last year. While that is an increase of less than 1 percent from the prior year, it marks the first uptick since 2008.
But it still remains about 15 percent below the peak hit before the slide.
"I think that's an indication, maybe, of a slow economic recovery that is beginning to take hold," said Mark Brnovich, the state gaming director.
"We know that we've seen gaming revenues increase when the economy's good," he explained. "And when the economy slows down, people are spending less of their discretionary income."
That $1.7 billion figure represents gross gaming revenues: what the tribes had left after they paid out in winnings but before other expenses like payroll and utilities.
By law, the actual amount wagered in tribal casinos is confidential.
But the law also requires that at least 80 percent of the "handle" must go back out in winnings. That makes the tribes' share, which amounts to 20 percent or less, the only public indication of how much Arizonans are pumping into gambling machines.
Revenues from individual tribes are not made public.
Wendell Long, chief executive of the Sol Casinos operated by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Southern Arizona, said he has not seen any significant signs that people are finally willing to part with more of their cash.
"We're still stagnant," he said.
"We're seeing our guest counts go up dramatically," Long said, an indication that people still are interested in gambling. "But our 'spend per guest' is down."
Long said that won't pick up until the economy comes back. But he said there are things the tribe can do to push things along.
One of those will go on line next month when the tribe opens a new 215-room resort, complete with a conference center and "the largest ballroom in Tucson."
Long said all that should not only bring more visitors to the casino but, now with a place to stay, persuade them to stay overnight. And it also will enable the tribe to attract convention business.
Brnovich said while the signs look good, he is making no predictions of when gaming revenues will get back on track.
"Of course, this is a fragile recovery," Brnovich said.
"We don't know what's going to happen with the U.S. debt situation, what's going to happen in Europe," he continued. "And all that may impact the overall recovery."
Brnovich - and the state - have more than a passing interest in the trend in casino gambling revenues.
Under the terms of a deal approved by voters in 2002, the tribes got the exclusive right to operate casinos in the state. In exchange, they agreed to provide a share of the revenues to the state, on a sliding scale from 1 percent to 8 percent of gross revenues, depending on how much each takes in.
For the last budget year, revenue sharing totaled $78.8 million, a figure that state gaming officials said is about $900,000 more than the prior year.
Tribal gaming revenues
Arizona tribal gaming revenues, based on state revenue sharing. Fiscal-year figures reflect revenues from April 1 of prior year to March 31 of the year listed.