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Barring An Extension, Massachusetts Sports Betting Bill Dead

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Unless Massachusetts legislators agree to extend the session, all efforts to send a sports betting bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk in the current term will fail. The likely fatal blow came in the waning hours of Wednesday.

H. 4887, an economic stimulus package which has been the primary focus of both chambers all week long, includes dozens of amendments. The Massachusetts Senate passed on amendments that would have legalized wagering on sporting events, however.

What happened to the Massachusetts sports betting bill

The bill’s end was likely very different from that which supporters originally imagined. A joint legislative committee began working on a legal framework for Massachusetts sports betting early in 2019.

Over a year later, that joint committee submitted its proposals to the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee. Just days after that happened, however, the legislature shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

When activity resumed, other things like housing and unemployment took priority over gambling expansion. That effectively killed off the existing bill. The proposal’s precepts lived on, however.

Those tenets came back from the dead in the House late last week, as amendments to H. 4887. Among the amendments is language that would:

  • Authorize the state gaming commission to regulate legal sportsbooks in the commonwealth
  • Establish licensing for online and retail sportsbooks along with service providers
  • Permit brick-and-mortar casinos, off-track betting sites, and racetracks to offer wagering
  • Allow for online-only, standalone sportsbook operators
  • Establish a 15% tax on handle for the state
  • Impose a 1% excise tax on handle for in-state events, paid to venue owners

The Massachusetts House passed the bill with those amendments on Tuesday, shifting the focus to the Senate. That’s where things went awry.

Late Wednesday night, the Senate advanced its own version of the economic stimulus package without any amendments that mentioned sports wagering. The dominant theme was that senators didn’t see attaching gambling expansion to an economic recovery bill as best practice.

Sen. Eric Lesser, who has been one of the biggest proponents of legalization, made the position clear.

Despite the amendments’ defeat in the Senate, it seems there is one last chance to legalize sports betting in 2020. Again, everything hinges on a decision by the Senate right now.

The last hope for a sports betting bill this year

While it’s fair to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for shifting legislative priorities, it may be that exact circumstance that offers a lifeline. The legislature may go into overtime for that very reason.

The current session has an end date of Friday, July 31. The House has already passed a resolution to extend the session, however. As of the beginning of the day Thursday, the Senate had yet to concur.

Against Friday’s deadline, state legislators simply didn’t see gambling expansion as a top priority. With more time, the political negotiations to get the necessary support in the Senate may take place.

Even an extension wouldn’t guarantee that the Senate would take up, much less approve, such a bill. It will all depend on its proponents’ salesmanship.

If the Senate passes on the extension or the legislature fails to pass a bill in the extended term, those proponents can try again in the next term. That would likely push legal wagering in the state to late 2021, at the earliest.

All hope is not lost at this point, but it seems improbable that the Massachusetts legislature will legalize sports betting this year. At the very least, senators do not see gambling expansion as part of their economic recovery package.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) may not have to worry about drafting sports wagering regulations any time soon, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be busy. The subject of a third commercial casino has occupied legislators this week as well.

A third commercial casino in Brockton?

The ongoing drama of whether a third commercial casino in Brockton or a tribal casino near Taunton will occupy “Region C” of Massachusetts also surfaced in legislative actions this week.

The House’s economic package included a call for the MGC to report to the legislature on the status of Region C by Oct. 1. The MGC has fielded interest from developers, including Rush Street Gaming.

That process is held up, however, by the uncertain status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s plans to operate a casino of its own. The MGC has a standing compact with the tribe that would preclude the existence of a commercial casino in the region.

That is tied to the federal government’s maintenance of the tribe’s reservation. Right now, that matter is on appeal in a federal court and also under consideration in Congress.

The fate of sports betting at casinos and a potential third commercial casino in the state will be decided over the coming months. For sports wagering, that fate may be a ways off.

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Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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