In spite of support from the Massachusetts House, the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and New England Revolution, and the likely backing of Gov. Charlie Baker, legalized sports betting failed to pass the state Senate in November. But it’s a sure bet the spark could ignite this year.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, proposed an amendment to the fiscal 2021 budget that would have legalized retail and online betting but the move was rejected without a roll call vote in November. Senate President Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said at the time “the focus is going to be on conference committees, resolving the budget, and COVID. We’ll see, though,” according to LegalSportsReport.com.
Now is the time to see.
There are enough backers of this large, untapped revenue source that it could win approval this year. With the state budget facing some tough sledding because of the pandemic, this could be the year for the Bay State to join neighbors Rhode Island and New Hampshire in allowing people to wager on sporting events. Even now, any Massachusetts adult with the right app on their phone can gamble on sports once they’ve crossed the line into either Rhode Island or New Hampshire. It’s just not legal to make those wagers from within our borders.
So what’s the holdup? Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who’s on the verge of filing a proposal to legalize sports betting in this legislative session, points to illegal gambling and how the state is missing a “real opportunity” to capitalize on legal sports wagers while regulating the process.
“Sports betting is alive and well in Massachusetts, but unfortunately we’re letting money go down the drain to the black market and states that have legalized,” he told State House News Service. “I think we have a real opportunity here to generate some revenue at a time we’re facing a lot of uncertainty.”
Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, plans to file his own bill soon, telling the News Service “the time has come” for the state to legalize sports betting.
Crighton’s newest bill aims to raise the bar for entry into the legal sports betting market, if the Legislature goes with his proposal. Crighton proposes a $10 million licensing fee – up from $1 million in his original bill – and a tax rate of 15% on wagers. His bill would allow wagers on pro and college sports, but not on college teams from universities inside the state.
Crighton told the News Service he wants to include wagering on college teams in the legislation to lure gamblers away from illegal gambling options, adding, “If we want people to leave their illegal marketplace and come into a regulated one, we need to keep that attraction available to them.”
There is no way to gauge how much legalized sports betting would diminish illegal gambling. Legalizing recreational marijuana allowed for the growth of a highly regulated, heavily taxed, business sector, but a black market will always exist as long as sellers can undercut legal retailers on the price.
With a growing consensus that a gambling bill could pass this year, lawmakers need to keep in mind they aren’t alone in considering this idea. Various reports say the Native American tribes and state government in Connecticut are looking favorably at legalization there; Maine almost legalized gambling last year before the governor vetoed the bill; and Vermont lawmakers are considering a study to figure out what sports betting might bring to their state.
Legalized gambling should be approved in Massachusetts with the kind of tight controls the state developed for retail cannabis sales. The state now has yet another chance to bring in new revenue, this time via an already regulated industry that includes two casinos and the Plainridge horse track in Plainville.
This is the year for state lawmakers to place their bets and support legalized sports wagering in Massachusetts. We should not leave money on the table.