House passes sports betting legislation, likely no quick action in the Senate though

By Seth Daniel

The race is on in the State Legislature on sports betting as the House voted last Thursday to approve a wide-ranging sports wagering bill after years of state government trying to get passage of some sort of sports betting bill.

However, don’t expect to be laying down any sport wager this fall during football season or the World Series, as the timeline would suggest no legislation would make it through both houses of the Legislature and be signed into law until early next year.

In the summer, typically, the Senate doesn’t bring matters to the floor in a short period of time and August is historically a slow time on the legislative calendar for that body. It is likely that the Senate might pick up the matter in the fall for hearings and, potentially, a Conference Committee.

While passage by the first of the year would miss most of the football season and the World Series, it would allow the industry to pick up heavy-betting events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball Final Four tournament – not to forget the regular season games for professional basketball and hockey.

State Rep. Dan Ryan, probably the elected official that lives closest to Encore Boston Harbor where sports betting would occur, said it’s a logical next step for expanded gaming.

“Legalizing sports betting is a logical step for Massachusetts,” he said. “Due to increased accessibility to betting apps and online resources the Commonwealth is losing millions of dollars of gaming revenue every year to other states. There are warranted concerns about problem gambling. Safeguards are in this bill to address gambling and other addictions. To bring sports betting out of the shadows and make it accessible to the casual fan will hopefully change the culture around gambling while generating jobs and revenue for worthwhile programs.”

Most of the industry, including Encore Boston Harbor, has been in favor of the sports wagering bills in Massachusetts – and particularly coming out of costly COVID-19 shutdowns last year. Wynn Resorts is in the midst of a large expansion of its Wynn Interactive venture that was launched last October, and would by all accounts be ready almost immediately for sports wagering online and in-person were any bill passed in Massachusetts.

Gov. Charlie Baker submitted sports betting legislation many years ago, and his proposal could never grab any traction in either side of the Legislature. Last year, in the Economic Development Bill, the House included sports betting as a part of that, but it was cut out in the Senate.

Late last week, the House passed a wide-ranging bill that includes college sports (that had been cut out in previous years) and electronic apps and platforms – as well as traditional sports betting at casinos like Encore Boston Harbor.

The House passed the bill 156-3 Thursday evening.

“Massachusetts has the opportunity to generate job opportunities and bring millions of tax dollars annually by legalizing an industry that already exists, but in the black market and other states,” said Speaker Ron Mariano. “Once again, the House of Representatives has passed legislation that would make our state competitive in this industry in which dozens of states have already gotten a head start. I thank Chairs Michlewitz and Parisella for their work in making this important piece of legislation happen, and all our colleagues in the House for their work in the final product.”

The legislation authorizes the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) to grant in-person licenses at gaming establishments, including casinos like Encore, racetracks and simulcast facilities, as well as mobile licenses through mobile applications or digital platforms. It was estimated that the legislation would generate $60 million in annual tax revenue for Massachusetts, in addition to collecting up to $70 to $80 million in initial licensing fees, which must be renewed every five years. The revenue collected will be distributed to municipalities, and for economic, workforce, education, and public health priorities. 

“This legislation will provide much needed economic development to the state while allowing our residents to enjoy sports betting right here in the Commonwealth,” said Representative Aaron Michlewitz, Chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means (D-Boston). “A significant portion of the revenue generated from this bill will go towards helping low-income communities and vulnerable youth and young adults get the skills and opportunities they need to get stable employment and wage growth. Our cities and towns will also see a significant amount of this revenue, as will after school and out of school activities among others”.

“An Act regulating sports wagering” (H. 3977) includes a 12.5 percent tax on in-person wagering and a 15 percent tax on mobile wagering, with an additional 1 percent for games played in Massachusetts going to a fund that will then be distributed to each facility for the purpose of sports wagering security and integrity.

The House legislation creates the Workforce Investment Trust Fund, the Youth Development and Achievement Fund and the Players Benevolence Fund, which will receive 40 percent, 20 percent, and 1 percent, respectively, of the revenue generated by the taxes and licensing fees. The rest of the funds will go to the existing Gaming Local Aid Fund (33 percent) and the Public Health Trust Fund (6 percent).

•The funds in the Workforce Investment Trust Fund will be used to develop and strengthen workforce opportunities for low-income communities and vulnerable youth and young adults, including to promote stable employment and wage growth. 

•The funds in the Youth Development and Achievement Fund will provide financial assistance to students enrolled in and pursuing a program of higher education, and for after school and out of school activities.

•The Players’ Benevolence Fund will recommend to the Gaming Commission a schedule for the distribution of funds that benefit current and former professional sports players or their charitable foundations. 

The legislation will also allow betting on college sports, but not wagers on the performance of individual college athletes, and betting on eSports. People must be 21 years old or older to bet. As directed through this legislation, the MGC will be conducting a study into the feasibility of allowing retail locations to operate sports wagering kiosks. An amendment offered by Representative Orlando Ramos (D-Springfield) expands the focus of the study to include the potential economic impact of retail licenses on communities of color, as well as a larger study on ways to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are considered in this rapidly expanding industry.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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