Arizona Keeps Sports Betting Hopes Alive

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Sports betting in Arizona was pretty much off the radar in 2020. Legislation to authorize sportsbooks in the Grand Canyon State was filed in the Senate but never made it to the chamber floor for a vote.

Fast forward to 2021. Even states like Arizona — which had fewer government COVID-19  restrictions than some other states — took major hits to their state budgets. The Grand Canyon State’s General Fund had a five-percent decline in anticipated pre-COVID-19 projected revenue last year for a loss of $616 million. This year, that loss will be around $218 million. In 2022, the loss is expected to total $341 million.

That has many Arizona state legislators ready to consider new revenue streams, and sports betting is one of them. Bipartisan legislation to legalize both onsite and mobile sports betting at a limited number of tribal casinos and pro sports venues — with additional licenses for retail sports betting only — cleared the state House last Thursday 48-12. That proposal would also allow daily fantasy sports and keno at social clubs.

Senate Action On Sports Betting

The bill now goes to the Senate, where supporters hope to revive a nearly identical proposal sponsored by Sen. T.J. Shope that was derailed in the Senate budget committee last week. Shope is working through Senate leadership to have his legislation pulled from the committee – a move that he hopes will give it a chance at passage.

 “If (the legislation) is withdrawn from Senate Appropriations, we will have the opportunity to debate the bill on the Senate Floor and give what is the future of sports wagering and tribal gaming in Arizona a fair up-or-down vote,” Shope said last week. “I thank all stakeholders who got us to this point and pledge to them and Gov. Ducey that we won’t let them down!”

Gov. Ducey’s Role In The Debate

Gov. Doug Ducey has been renegotiating a federally-required 2002 tribal gaming compact with 16 tribal nations to move Arizona sports betting legislation forward. Both sports-betting bills now pending are tied to the compact, with federal (not state) approval of the compact required. What’s more, both the legislation and new compact would have to take effect for any sportsbook licenses to be issued.

It’s possible that the legislation could lose momentum.  Some Arizona legislators have questioned making state legislation dependent on a new compact. They have called for transparency in negotiations between Gov. Ducey and the tribes which, so far, have been kept private. Proponents of the legislation are, however, hopeful that existing bipartisan support will keep the legislation alive.

What’s Next

The House proposal has had a pretty smooth ride so far by escaping any amendments that could nix plans for final passage. More finagling is necessary to save the Senate bill. That proposal lost speed last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee tacked the sports-betting bill’s provisions onto a historic horse racing bill. Tribal issues with the HHR bill further complicate matters.

A little time remains to move both proposals forward – but not much. Legislation filed this session must be voted out of both chambers by mid-April to have a chance at enactment before the session’s end on April 23. If either bill gets that far, key lawmakers say sports betting could launch in Arizona by the 2021 baseball season.  

Sports Betting May Have A Future In Texas (Yes, Texas)

Power struggles can make or break legislation. The outcome depends on who is on the winning side. That could spell trouble for sports-betting legislation pending in Texas where opposition to sportsbooks has come from top state government brass.

Legalization of sports betting under the Texas plan would be focused only on licensing of pro sports teams, not casinos. It would also require a constitutional amendment that would go before the state’s voter this November. If that passes, sportsbooks in Texas could be legal by the end of the year.

The challenge is getting the state’s Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General behind the effort. All three men have been opposed to sports betting in the past, but things could change. The question is, will they change in time for sports betting to make the ballot this year?  

About the Author

Rebecca Hanchett

Rebecca Hanchett is a political writer based in Kentucky's Bluegrass region and covers legislative developments at Gaming Today. She worked as a public affairs specialist for 23 years at the Kentucky State Capitol. A University of Kentucky grad, she has been known to watch UK basketball from time to time.

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