Massachusetts Senate President Spilka: Sports Betting Not Top Priority This Year

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Connecticut went live with its first sportsbooks last Thursday as Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka met with reporters to downplay the chances of sports betting legalization at home.

The MetroWest Democrat didn’t seem concerned about the Connecticut launch and the approximate $84 million in state revenue expected to be generated by that state’s sports betting and online casinos each year. She’s had several months to call sports betting to a vote in her own chamber this year — including a bill passed by the Massachusetts House in July — only, it seems, to pass up the chance. 

Now, it appears that Spilka may forgo Senate action on Massachusetts sports betting for the rest of 2021. 

Spilka left sports betting off her list of top Senate priorities for the remainder of the year in a Sept. 30 interview with State House News Service reporter Chris Lisinski. Redistricting, mental health parity, election reform, and supplemental spending action will come first, she said. 

Sports betting might be taken up in the Senate if there is any “bandwidth” left, she told Lisinski. 

The House bill and a few Senate bills — including one sponsored by Sen. Eric Lesser, R-Longmeadow — are now pending a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. No hearings are yet scheduled.

Spilka’s Role In The Massachusetts Sports Betting Delay

The Senate President’s lack of urgency on sports betting caused a stir last Friday on Bloomberg Baystate Business when radio host Kim Carrigan suggested that the obstacle to passage may be Spilka herself.

“The more and more that this goes on, the more it appears it is the President who is holding this issue back,” said Carrigan. 

But Lisinski, a guest on the show, gave Spilka some leeway. He indicated that the Senator could be treading lightly on what may be a touchy issue in some legislative districts. 

“Maybe she’s just hearing too much opposition from within her own ranks, and is worried that this won’t get the kind of broad support that legislative leaders … really like to guarantee that they have before they bring them to the floor,” he said. 

Additionally, Spilka has said that Senate Ways and Means is “looking at” sports betting. That seems to put at least some of the onus on that committee

Senate Committee Hold-Up? 

The Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee is a budget panel where the House sports betting bill has been waiting on a hearing since it passed the lower chamber on July 23. Lesser’s bill has been holed up in the committee since July 21. 

The chair of that committee is Sen. Michael Rodrigues — a Westport Democrat who said after the Senate rejected sports betting in 2020 that “the time is close, and we are going to be tackling this issue.” 

That was almost a year and a half ago. So far this year, the only Senate floor action on sports betting was a May vote nixing two budget amendments that could have legalized Massachusetts sports betting this year. 

In fact, Lisinski said sports betting legislation in Massachusetts has been well-vetted overall, with the House passing sportsbook bills twice in the past two years. The remaining work, he hinted, has to start in the Senate. 

“The question is where the Senate is ultimately going to land compared to the House,” Lisinki said. “I suppose one of the questions that remains unanswered is how or whether college sports betting will feature in the Senate’s package.” 

The House bill now pending before the Senate would allow for college sports betting in Massachusetts unlike Lesser’s bill, which, at least for now, does not include betting on collegiate sports. 

Possible Next Steps

Massachusetts needs to have a regulatory bill through to Gov. Charlie Baker before Thanksgiving to have any chance of launching sports betting by the 2022 Super Bowl.  Otherwise, there is no hard-and-fast deadline for action this year. 

Bills now pending are technically in play for two years, with each full session split into a first and second annual session, according to Massachusetts Senate Clerk staff. Formal action in the first annual session ends on Nov. 17, 2021, although staff told Gaming Today recently that the House and Senate can act on current bills into next year. 

The last day of the current annual session is Jan. 4, 2022, with the second annual session beginning on Jan. 5. 

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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