The state House has passed multiple bills in the last few years that would have legalized sports betting in Massachusetts. Until this past week, all of those bills fell flat when they reached the Senate.
On Friday, though, the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee made a leap in progress by advancing Bill S.269. It’s an amended version of House bill H. 3993, which passed the House last July with overwhelming support in a 156-3 vote.
What was the holdup on Massachusetts sports betting bills in the Senate?
With several sports betting bills having passed in the House just to hit a wall of silence in the Senate, supporters have been getting frustrated.
The Senate’s inaction has prompted local businesses to push for legal sports wagering in Massachusetts. Lawmakers who support legislation have also promised to put some pressure on the Senate to take action on Massachusetts sports betting bills.
One of the biggest issues that has prevented the Senate from passing the multiple bills that flew through the House is the question of college sports being included in wagering.
Back in 2020, athletic directors and presidents of top Massachusetts universities pushed lawmakers to ban college sports from any legislation passed for sports wagering in the state.
Those university officials were concerned that college betting would pose “unnecessary and unacceptable risks to student-athletes, their campus peers, and the integrity and culture of colleges and universities in the Commonwealth.”
House Speaker Ron Mariano, however, has indicated that banning college sports from legislation is counterproductive to the ultimate goal of legal sports betting.
“I find myself having a tough time trying to justify going through all of this to not include probably the main driver of betting in the commonwealth,” he said last summer.
Mariano says banning college sports wagering would bring the state’s revenue from sports betting down significantly.
He estimates that with college sports, annual revenue would be roughly $60 million. Without it, revenue would fall to $35 million annually, at best.
The Senate makes it clear, though, that they will push back on any sports wagering bills that include legal college sports betting.
Senate and House bills have major differences
The first notable difference between the advanced Senate bill and the initial House bill on sports betting is the expected ban on college sports wagering.
Other significant differences include increased tax rates and the number of total licenses allowed to be granted in the state.
The House bill would tax mobile sportsbooks at 15% and retail sportsbooks at 12.5%. In contrast, the Senate bill hiked those percentages up to 35% and 20%.
The Senate’s tax rates are on the high end of the spectrum. It especially stands out when compared to other states with legal sports betting.
The House bill allows for 11 total mobile sportsbook licenses, operated through one of the three Massachusetts casinos. The Senate bill knocked that number down to 9 licenses and no mention of requiring operation through a casino.
One last difference between the two bills is the inclusion of credit cards as payment when wagering. The House bill initially allowed the use of credit cards, but the Senate bill banned their use.
Prohibiting credit cards when placing sports bets is a failsafe against problem gambling increase due to mobile wagering availability.
Senator Eric Lesser has been an outspoken supporter of legal sports betting in Massachusetts. Even he sees the wisdom in banning credit card use in legislation.
“The idea that somebody somewhat impulsively could rack up massive credit card bills from their couch who might have an addiction issue or otherwise have a gambling problem — that’s a big concern, and it’s a big concern to our caucus,” he said.
Massachusetts state legislature to debate Senate sports betting bill soon
Legal sports betting has been a grueling, multi–year battle. However, with the new Senate bill passing committee, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Even so, the differences between the two bills could prove a source of friction between lawmakers this legislative season. The state legislature is debating the new Senate bill this week.
If a final bill passes before July 31 when the general session ends, Massachusetts sports betting could launch as early as January of 2023.