As some states look to soon “re-open” and others examine plans to ease restrictions in connection with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, such as shelter-in-place orders, state legislatures will begin to pick back up where they left off. Only the economic picture locally and worldwide will look quite different from where they left off.
Is now a good time for states to consider legalizing sports wagering? As major U.S. professional sports remain sidelined, lawmakers will again weigh the pros and cons of various proposals. Legal sports wagering can create not only a new revenue stream for a state, but jobs. While lawmakers are careful not to appear too opportunistic, new revenue streams will be critical going forward.
“It will be probably passed to save the budget and help to support public education,” Missouri state Rep. Dan Shaul told Sports Handle. “It’s the right thing to do for Missouri, it’s what people here really want — they want sports betting, VLTs and alternative gaming. There’s no time like the present with the budget situation.”
MO lawmakers head back into session
Shaul’s HB 2088 is one of at least six bills in the Missouri General Assembly. Before the General Assembly suspended its work, the bill was on the House’s “formal perfection calendar,” which means it was on the House floor, available to be voted on. The General Assembly is scheduled to go back into session on Monday for three weeks. There’s also a possibility that Missouri’s legislature will have a special session later this year.
The bill would allow for statewide mobile betting, apply a 9% tax on gross gaming revenue, and mandate the use of “official league data.” Mobile platforms would have to be tethered to brick-and-mortar sportsbooks. Missouri lawmakers still have to pass their budget, and Shaul is hoping a bill that creates revenue will be a winner.
“We’re going to pass this at some point … and I think the budget is just a good reason to do it,” he said. “But since this is already happening in the state in different ways we should regulate it and tax it and get the revenue. I think there is a great opportunity this year, it’s a narrow path.”
There are at least six other sports wagering bills circulating in Jefferson City, and most include an “integrity fee” to be paid to the professional leagues, a controversial off-the-top payment on all wagers that the NBA and MLB have sought, but no state has yet approved.
Viewing sports betting revenue through a new lens
Across the country in Massachusetts, Senator Brendan Crighton agrees.
“I think it could be taken up this year –$25 million (in revenue to the state) didn’t seem like that much when we had a budget surplus, before, but now when we want to get people back to work…” he said. “And when people have been starved from the sports they love, this might be welcome.”
Crighton is a key sponsor of HB 4559, a bill that brings together a variety of ideas that have been circulating in Boston for more than a year. The bill calls for statewide mobile betting, sets a 10% tax rate on retail betting revenue and 12% on mobile, and allows for betting Division I college sports. The Massachusetts legislature is in session year-round, though the “formal” session ends in July.
Sports wagering has long been a topic of conversation in the state, where sportsbook operator DraftKings, which became a publicly traded company on April 24, is headquartered. And sports, from the Red Sox to the Patriots to the Celtics and Bruins, are woven into the fabric of life in Massachusetts.
“We’ve been working on this for a few years now, and we feel like it’s properly vetted. All the states around us are doing it, so why are we letting the black market thrive here?” Crighton asked.
Massachusetts casinos are closed until at least May 4, and Crighton isn’t sure how the novel coronavirus pandemic will affect what goes on in the General Court over the next few months.
“Things have changed with coronavirus, so whatever track this is on, that might be a little different,” he said. “And the annual budget, too, it could end up as part of that, as well. … I don’t know what the appetite is for non-essential legislation right now.”
Things might have been different in Virginia
Virginia Delegate Mark Sickles is on the cusp of seeing legal sports betting in VA. The state’s General Assembly signed off on a pair of amended bills on April 22 and sent them back to Governor Ralph Northam for signature. The original versions of the bills were sent to Northam on March 8. He waited until the deadline to sign them — April 11 — before adding a list of amendments.
Sickles isn’t sure how things would have played out if the coronavirus crisis had been peaking when lawmakers were considering the issue in January and February.
“I think that if we had been going through this (coronavirus) in January and February, it could have made a difference in this and a lot of other things we did, in terms of priorities,” Sickles told Sports Handle. “We are going to freeze almost everything in our two-year budget until we get a budget. I think COVID-19, if it hangs around, which I think it will, could have an impact on this. When sports come back, having this ready to go will help to have more money for things that we want to do.”
As things stand now, Sickles thinks Virginia regulators will have the opportunity to develop regulations without too much pressure, because there are no major sports on which to wager.
Active sports betting bills
Besides the active bills in Missouri and Massachusetts, there are a handful of other of states in which lawmakers are still meeting or are scheduled to where the subject remains on the table.
Here’s a quick look at what’s up in those states:
Connecticut: When we last left our friends in the Nutmeg State, lawmakers, the governor, and the state’s two tribes were at loggerheads. It does not appear that anything has changed, and SB 21 and HB 5168 are still floating around Hartford. The General Assembly took a break March 12-April 23 and is now back in session until at least May 6.
Georgia: Lawmakers in the Peachtree State are currently on a break, but it appears they’ll have to meet again to pass a budget. When they do, HR 380, a bill that would send a decision to the voters, could move.
Kansas: HB 2671 got a hearing in March, but the bill didn’t get out of the Committee on State and Federal Affairs, and a Senate bill, SB 283 hasn’t even gotten a hearing yet. The Kansas State Legislature broke March 19-April 27.
Louisiana: The state legislature here initially opened March 9 and then went on hiatus indefinitely. There are two bills in Baton Rouge, SB 332 and SB 378, both of which would send the decision to legalize to the voters. But what’s missing this year is the issue’s biggest champion, former Sen. Danny Martiny, who disappointingly failed to get it legalized in 2019.
Ohio: The House is scheduled to get back in session on Tuesday and the Senate was scheduled to reconvene last week. There are a few Ohio sports betting bills that were introduced last year that are still in play, including HB 194, which allows for statewide mobile and retail betting and wagering on college sports. That bill, and at least one in the Senate, are in their respective finance committees. Representative Brigid Kelly, who sees plenty of advantage to legalizing sooner rather than later, told the Cincinnati Inquirer earlier this month, “Pretty soon we’re going to be an island and we want to make sure that we’re keeping resources on our island and not sending them out everywhere else.”
Vermont: Vermont lawmakers have been mucking around with a study bill for months. S.59 is currently in the Appropriations Committee. The General Assembly took a two-week hiatus in March and remains in session until May 8.