Proponents of sports betting held out hope this month that Massachusetts lawmakers would pass legislation to legalize sports betting, possibly as part of a multi-million-dollar economic development bill.
As of Wednesday night, the chances of a jobs bill that includes sports betting legalization landing on the governor’s desk are slim. While the House passed an economic development bill with sports betting language, the Senate rejected multiple amendments that would have incorporated the provision into the legislation.
The Senate unanimously passed a $455 million economic development bill Wednesday night after several hours of debate. The bill does not include any language to legalize sports betting.
“As it relates to sports gaming, sports wagering, I believe that certainly the time is close when we are going to be tackling this issue, but the time is not now,” said Sen. Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, as he spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday night. “Nor is this the proper vehicle to do so in.”
Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, backs legalizing sports betting. He said he wants to see it happen in 2020. Just not as part of the economic development bill.
“This specific bill on this specific day, which we pointed out earlier in our session when debate began is about an emergency response economically to the coronavirus depression that we find ourselves in,” Lesser said in response to a sports betting amendment filed by Sen. Michael Brady. “At this specific moment, we need to hold.”
Brady, a Brockton Democrat, said he hears from constituents who say they travel south to Rhode Island to place sports bets.
“This was an important piece of legislation and amendment put forth in this economic development bill that we’re doing today that would help people out,” Brady said before withdrawing the amendment.
Brady’s amendment was the last of a handful that would have added sports betting to the jobs bill. Sen. Brendan Crighton, vice chair of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee, filed an amendment but later withdrew it. Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, filed a sports betting amendment that was rejected.
Some agreed with Lesser’s assessment on the path to sports betting legalization. Brendan Bussmann, a partner at Global Market Advisors, said lawmakers should continue to take a thoughtful approach to crafting a legal sports betting market, rather than tacking it onto a wide-ranging economic development bill.
“Rushing it into an economic development bill was, as Sen. Lesser said, not the best timing or the vehicle to get it done,” Bussmann said. “Obviously, those discussions will continue, and we’ll see how quickly they’ll move to get a good sports betting package together.”
A sports betting provision emerged late last week as part of the House’s multi-million-dollar jobs bill. The House planned to fast-track the sports betting proposal by tacking it onto the bill, but sources told MassLive the biggest barrier would be getting the Senate on board.
The House and Senate passed notably different versions of economic development legislation. Those differences must be reconciled before both chambers can approve a final bill and send it to the governor’s desk.
Eighteen states have legalized sports betting, and altogether two dozen states have passed legislation to legalize sports betting, according to ESPN.
The increasingly likely approval of a finalized jobs bill without sports betting language doesn’t kill the prospect of creating a legal market in Massachusetts.
Lawmakers traditionally end their two-year legislative session on July 31. Yet the Legislature is seeking to extend formal sessions past the end of the month because of delays caused by COVID-19. The move enables lawmakers to move forward on key legislation rather than rushing through multiple major bills to meet Friday’s deadline. The extension would also buy legislators time to advance a comprehensive standalone sports betting bill, like the one released earlier this year from the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee.
The House adopted an order to extend formal sessions past Friday. It’s up to the Senate to adopt the order.
Daniel Wallach, co-founding director of the University of New Hampshire School of Law’s UFABET Sports Wagering & Integrity program, said the sports betting language attached to the House bill was a thoughtful approach based on testimony for more than a year ago and a redraft from the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee.
The downside of not advancing a jobs bill with sports betting is the gaming industry would miss out on revenue, including tax revenue for the state, if a legal sports market isn’t implemented by the Super Bowl, Wallach said.
“If 2020 is the ETA on a sports betting bill, all that is going to be fine regardless of whether it’s tucked into a broader piece of legislation or a standalone bill,” Wallach said. “I think the greater risk is waiting too long.”
If lawmakers return to a standalone sports betting bill, Bussmann said the legislation should offer a much broader pool of applicants than the House Ways and Means Committee initially proposed in its version. The House bill was passed Tuesday with language opening up eligibility to a broader pool of mobile sports betting companies.
Bussmann also said the committee’s proposed 1% facility fee and the efforts to dictate the details on sports data contracts would hurt operators.
“I think there’s an opportunity to craft a competitive market that will help drive competition amongst a host of operators to Massachusetts,” Bussmann said. “It’s one of the best sports states in the country.”
The 1% facility fee, also referred to as an integrity fee, amounts to a much smaller fraction because it’s limited to sporting events in Massachusetts, Wallach said.
If enacted, the latest sports betting proposal that’s part of the House jobs bill would create a much more open market for mobile sports betting operators — comparable to Nevada and more competitive than other states in the region, Wallach said.
Nevada has approximately eight sportsbook apps. Massachusetts would have a similar number with possibly four slots for operators that aren’t tied to the state’s casinos.
“It’s truly the first untethered mobile environment in the casino industry,” Wallach said of the proposal. “No other state that has a casino or horse racing industry has so much as one untethered license. Massachusetts would have four.”
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