In July, the Massachusetts House passed sports betting legislation with lawmakers expressing hope that the Senate moved on the issue.
Three months later, the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies held its first hearing since the House passage. But the Tuesday hearing was billed as “gaming legislation beyond sports betting.”
Mainly it focused on Plainridge Park’s request to authorize the gaming commission to consider adding table games at the property.
However, sports betting managed to creep into the discussion anyway.
Plainridge trying to keep up with Rhode Island
Plainridge Park opened as a harness race track in 1999. A 2011 compromise in legislation to add up to three casinos in Massachusetts allowed Plainridge to have slot machines.
The slots parlor opened in 2015. Subsequently, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor opened as full casinos with slots and table games.
Since then, two casinos across the border in Rhode Island are stealing business from Massachusetts residents with their superior offerings. Twin Rivers Casino is about a 20-minute drive across the border, while Tiverton Casino is about 40 minutes away.
Essentially, they argue that Tiverton and Twin Rivers are drinking Plainridge’s milkshake by advertising that they offer amenities Plainridge doesn’t.
They ask the legislature to permit the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to consider adding up to 30 table games and 250 slot machines at Plainridge. That would only be about a quarter of the tables games allowed at the other Massachusetts casinos. But it would allow Plainridge to compete on a more level playing field with the casinos across the border.
“We’re here to push for a modest expansion of Plainridge so that the Commonwealth can best compete with our neighbors to the south and we can protect the jobs, our local businesses and the tax revenues that have been generated by Plainridge Park,” Roy said.
Benefits to Massachusetts for expanding Plainridge
Penn National Gaming operates Plainridge Park. Jeff Morris of Penn National told the committee that the addition of table games would create approximately 175 new local jobs while increasing tax revenues for the Commonwealth and the town of Plainville.
“Despite utilizing our best efforts to compete, it is simply an uneven playing field,” Morris said. “The unfortunate result is gaming dollars and in turn jobs and tax revenue continue to flow across Massachusetts borders and into Rhode Island. We want to offer the same gaming amenities offered right across border in Rhode Island.”
House committee chair Rep. Jerald Parisella questioned how Penn would address its lower licensing fee if allowed to expand. Penn paid a one-time licensing fee of $25 million for the slots parlor, while the full casinos paid $85 million.
Morris assured the committee that PNG isn’t looking for a backdoor way to get a bonus off their lower one-time fee. He said the bill would allow the gaming commission to renegotiate the licensing aspect with Plainridge.
Sports betting comes up in MA committee
Even though the hearing specifically wasn’t on sports betting, it came up anyway.
Dooley and Morris mentioned sports betting as another amenity offered by the Rhode Island casinos that Plainridge didn’t have.
Parisella, who championed sports betting legislation out of the House, asked Morris if sports wagering alone would help Plainridge compete with Rhode Island properties.
“It actually will help. Anything else we can bring that can put us on a level playing field would be very helpful. And sports betting, as we’re seeing across the country more than 30 states have now legalized, and in Massachusetts as you know quickly you’re going to be surrounded with Connecticut which will be up and running any day now and New York as well. We do hope to continue working with your committee and members of the Senate to hopefully pass sports betting legislation as soon as possible.”
Later, in discussing a bill to permit use of five slot machines at veterans’ organizations, it was mentioned that the language already was added to the House sports betting legislation in an amendment.
Governor pushes legislature to pass sports betting bill
Gov. Charlie Baker joined the House in urging the Senate to get moving on sports betting legislation.
Seizing on the NFL’s opening weekend, Baker tweeted:
“Great to see the Patriots back! We filed a bill in 2019 and again this year to legalize sports betting in MA – it’s time to act and get this done. MA is losing out to many of our neighbors on this one.”
A source at the Massachusetts legislature tells PlayMA that the Senate is likely to take up the sports betting legislation in mid-to-late October.