Marathon Hearing Keeps MA Sports Betting Hopes Alive

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For a state without legal sports betting, Massachusetts sure has a lot of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who want it.

Both Democrats (who control the state legislature) and Republicans (who control the governor’s office) tried to tie sports betting to the Senate state budget last month. When that didn’t work, members from both parties came together today for a nearly six-hour virtual hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies with up to 19 proposals aired by the right and the left. 

Bills with momentum in the legislature right now include identical bills filed by Democrats Sen. Adam Gomez and Rep. Orlando Ramos of Springfield, home of the MGM Springfield resort casino. Both proposals would legalize sportsbooks at casinos and online, while also allowing sports betting at smaller retailers like restaurants and bars. 

Another possible winner is H.70 — Gov. Charlie Baker’s 2021 proposal to legalize Massachusetts sports betting. Baker’s bill, modeled after state law in sports betting powerhouse New Jersey, would allow sportsbooks at licensed casinos and via untethered online apps. The bill is similar to a sports betting proposal the governor filed last year. 

“The Baker- (Lt. Gov. Karyn) Polito administration believes that the legalization of sports wagering is an appropriate next step, with a proper framework and consumer protection mechanism in place,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy, who testified for the administration.

 So, What’s Being Proposed? 

Gomez told the joint committee that his and Ramos’ bill would level the playing field for retailers and consumers. 

While 70 to 80 percent of sports bettors in Massachusetts will probably use a mobile sportsbook once sportsbooks are legalized, Gomez said there will be 20 to 30 percent of bettors who don’t want to download an app. Those consumers, he said, shouldn’t have to go to a casino or across state lines to place a sports wager. 

“Wth a simple kiosk in an establishment you are able to see some of the customers at your place rather than losing them to MGM five to 7 minutes away.” Gomez said at the hearing.

Massachusetts lawmakers in other casino districts, or districts that border legal sports betting states, or both, also pushed the joint committee for action on sports betting this session: 

  • Rep. Shawn Dooley — who represents Plainville,  home to Plainridge Park Casino. — said much of that town’s gambling business is going over the state line to Rhode Island where sports betting is up and running. Dooley said sports betting will help his local casino compete. 
  • Sen. John Velis of Westfield, near the Connecticut border, seemed to favor inclusion or small retailers and social clubs like a local VFW. Velis told the committee that not everyone will download a sports betting app but may drive over the border to a CT casino to bet, unless they can place a wager at a local hangout like a VFW or bar. 

The governor’s bill would allow the state to capture what Kennealy said is approximately $35 million in annual state revenue now going to either illegal betting sites or other states. The proposal would do the following: 

  • Implement a tax rate of 10 percent on in-person sports wagers and 12.5 percent on online and DFS wagers (DFS bets, although legal, are untaxed in Massachusetts)
  • Revenue generated would go to the Massachusetts Gaming Local Aid Fund to support cities and towns
  • Sports betting on amateur and collegiate sports would be prohibited, in accordance with a prior DFS decision by the Massachusetts Attorney General 

Several other sports betting proposals under consideration on Beacon Hill this legislative session were also part of today’s agenda, with plenty of input from the industry and regulators, too.

Do Massachusetts Residents Want Legal Sports Betting? 

That’s a resounding yes, so says a write-up in yesterday’s Boston Globe. The newspaper reported that 61 percent of Massachusetts residents want sports betting based on a recent (albeit casino-commissioned) poll. 

The article also reports that Massachusetts sports betting in some form is likely to pass, eventually. The question is when. Legalization could come this fall, although the Globe article says next spring is more likely. 

Sports betting is now live and legal in 21 states and Washington, D.C. with nine other states with legal sports betting waiting to launch. Massachusetts is one of three states where there is active sports betting legislation in 2021. The other two states are Ohio and Maine.

About the Author

Rebecca Hanchett

Rebecca Hanchett is a political writer based in Kentucky's Bluegrass region who 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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