After discussion before the full Rhode Island House of Representatives on Tuesday evening, the chamber passed HB 5241, a measure that will legalize mobile sports wagering state-wide.
Several representatives argued in favor and against, but ultimately there was no suspense as the measure passed, 64-8. The bill was co-sponsored by Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D-District 15).
On the Senate side, President Dominick Ruggerio (D-District 4) sponsored S 37, which sailed through in February, 30-4. With all of that might behind it, passage of mobile sports betting was all but inevitable. The bill now heads back to the Senate, and from there to the desk of Governor Gina Raimondo, whose 2019 budget included an ambitious $23 million in total sports betting revenue for fiscal year 2019. In other words, she’ll be on board here as Rhode Island will need more than retail operations to meet those financial ambitions.
Rhode Island sports betting debate
Rhode Island House just voted on. HB 5241, to allow sports wagering online, following in-person registration. Measure passes 64-8.
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) March 12, 2019
One the House floor, a vocal minority expressed several points of opposition, among them objections about problem gambling. Representative Theresa Tanzi (D-District 34) said “Betting on premises is one thing. This is a whole new animal being unleashed.”
Earlier, Representative Blake Filippi (R-District 36) proposed an amendment that would have required the state’s supreme court to issue an opinion on the law’s constitutionality — whether it constitutes an “extension of gambling activities” that would require voter approval. A House colleague suggested passing the measure without obtaining such an opinion would only benefit the lawyers lined up to file a constitutional lawsuit. But the amendment failed.
The majority position was summed up in remarks by Representative Anastasia Williams (D-District 9), who said “Let’s stop money from going to all these other states. We always deal with the good, the bad and the ugly on many issues. This one is no different. We need [mobile sports betting] and we need it now.”
The state projects to collect $8 million in tax revenue in 2019 via mobile sports betting. As for the pie-cutting, sports betting revenue in Rhode Island gets split between the state, the state’s gaming operator and the casinos as follows: 51 percent, 32 percent, 17 percent.
Mobile sportsbook by existing providers
A key discussion point prior to the Senate vote was why Rhode Island is choosing to give a mobile sports betting monopoly to the Twin River Management Group, which owns and operates the state’s only two casinos, and houses the state’s two licensed sportsbooks. According to this bill, soon law, it will be the only company licensed to offer sports betting in the state.
“By passing this law, we would be giving a monopoly to one business, Twin River,” said Senator Sam Bell (D-District 5) at a committee hearing. “This is America! Why don’t we set up a real free market?”
The regulatory body for sports betting in Rhode Island is the state lottery, which contracted for retail operations with IGT and William Hill.
Thus, when the mobile rollout comes at a time not yet determined, it will likely resemble the William Hill skin as seen in New Jersey and Nevada.
Another controversial aspect concerns the account registration process. Bucking the New Jersey and Pennsylvania models (forthcoming), Rhode Island will require patrons to appear in person to sign up for a mobile betting account.
At the hearing, Bell said he believes that the requirement will deter Rhode Island gamblers from using the Twin River or Tiverton app, and keep them placing bets on the black market. He also suggested that in-person registration would keep potential customers from neighboring Massachusetts at home, and in the illegal market, as well.