With little fanfare and only one senator speaking in opposition, the Rhode Island Senate on Wednesday passed S 37, 30-4. The measure would legalize state-wide mobile sports betting requiring in-person registration at one of the state’s two casinos, Twin River or Tiverton, both owned by the Twin River Management Group. The measure will now be sent to the House for its approval.
HB 5241, which is a mirror image of S 37, must also work its way through the House, and upon approval, be sent to the Senate for its approval. Once both bills have been passed in both chambers, one will be sent to Governor Gina Raimondo for her signature. HB 5241, sponsored by Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D-District 15), was held over for more study by the House Committee on Finance last week.
Both bills have plenty of weight behind them. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-District 4) is the sponsor of the Senate bill, which made its way quickly through committee and onto the Senate floor. It’s a good bet that mobile sports betting will be legal in Rhode Island well before the end of the year, as lawmakers in both chambers, and the governor, were enthusiastic backers of sports betting when it passed last year. This time around, the goal, really, is to maximize Rhode Island’s sports betting revenue potential.
Rhode Island needs the money
“Frankly, I think Rhode Island needs the money,” said Senator Donna Nesselbush (D-District 15), who voted in favor of the bill despite concerns that a new mobile law might be challenged in the future.
— Dan Jaehnig (@DanJaehnig) February 13, 2019
The key discussion point prior to the vote was why Rhode Island is choosing to give a monopoly to the Twin River Management Group, which owns and operates the state’s only two casinos. When Rhode Island first legalized sports betting last June, the company was the only beneficiary — besides the state, which gets a 51 percent cut of revenue — and with a new mobile piece, it will be the only company licensed to offer sports betting in the state.
Senator Sam Bell, who argued against moving the bill forward during last week’s committee meeting, reiterated his concerns on the Senate floor.
“By passing this law, we would be giving a monopoly to one business, Twin River,” he said. “This is America! Why don’t we set up a real free market?”
Bell added he believes that the in-person registration 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.
Bill would give Twin River a monopoly on mobile sports betting
It seemed clear from the limited discussion that lawmakers chose to legalize with a monopoly as a way to speed up legalization and avoid having to take the issue to the voters. At the hearing last week, lottery officials allowed that if the state chooses to use current sports betting vendor IGT for its mobile piece, that mobile could be launched in time for football season.
Other than adding the mobile element, the bill mirrors existing Rhode Island sports betting law, including dividing sports betting revenue as follows: 51 percent to the state, 32 percent to the sportsbook operator, and 17 percent to the host casino.
Rhode Island was the first New England state to legalize sports betting, and will likely be the first to legalize state-wide mobile. Lawmakers in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts are seriously exploring sports betting, but neither state is ready legalize in the immediate future.