Negotiations still ongoing

Massachusetts Gov., House Speaker cast doubt on sports betting bill with only one week left before session end

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
Reading time 2:53 min

A Massachusetts bill seeking to legalize sports betting is in jeopardy as time begins to run out for legislators to bridge differences between Senate and House sports betting proposals. Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Ron Mariano have now voiced doubts about these efforts with only one week left before the end of formal sessions.

Legislators continue to work on a compromise bill under a conference committee consisting of state senators and House representatives. While Senate President Karen Spilka said earlier this week she was “hopeful” a bill would come out before the July 31 deadline, this wouldn’t seem like a sure bet, as the legislature remains “far apart” on the issue.

Gov. Baker, a long-time supporter of sports betting legalization who has vocally urged lawmakers to advance a proposal, has been described as striking “an ambivalent tone” about the bill’s trajectory on Thursday afternoon.

“You know, it’s hard to tell at the end of session sort of what is or what isn’t going to get through the gate at the end,” Baker said during an interview on GBH News’ Boston Public Radio. “It is certainly on the minds of people in the Legislature... People are asking questions about it, people are still discussing it.”

Without providing examples, Baker said he is certain other pieces of legislation will land on his desk before the July 31 deadline. But with sports betting, he told the Boston Public Radio hosts that it was “hard” for him to draw a conclusion, reports MassLive.

While a compromise sports betting bill could still be reached in the final days, a set of key issues must be resolved by the conference committee for this to happen. Among them is college sports betting: while the House bill allows this form of gaming, the Senate’s proposal does not.

Additionally, the Senate bill features tighter restrictions on sports betting advertising, marketing and the use of credit cards for gambling. In contrast, the House bill does not feature these rigid provisions, and includes a lower tax rate, both for in-person and online wagering. While the House bill taxes betting at physical locations at 12.5% and online at 15%, the Senate proposal taxes at 20% and 35% respectively.

The Senate provision seeking to ban collegiate sports betting seems to be the most controversial one, dividing the legislature. In May, House Speaker Ron Mariano said that a proposal not featuring college sports wagering would be “a dealbreaker.” “It’s hard for me to figure out what the purpose of the Senate bill is,” Mariano said at the time, arguing the state would be forfeiting its ability to maximize tax revenue and clamp down on black market activity.

On Thursday, asked if the bill will reach the finish line, Mariano told reporters at the State House: “Realistically, I don’t know. We’re far apart.” For him, the sticking point continues to be college sports betting, and again warned of unregulated black market activity if Bay Staters are unable to access regulated options for betting.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano

“I think there’s an opportunity to include college sports, rather than let it be only handled by bookies,” Mariano said. “I mean, I don’t understand if you’re going to do sports betting why you would leave out Final Four bowl games and the whole college football season. It doesn’t seem to be worth doing if you’re going to leave those.”

Mariano said he oscillates between feeling optimistic about sports betting or fretting over “this is never going to end,” as reported by MassLive. “I’m reluctant to turn over college sports to the black market,” Mariano added. “I’ve had that position since the beginning.”

Four Massachusetts border states — New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — have legal sports betting. While it is yet unclear which provisions would survive a potential compromise, what both chambers agree on is that Massachusetts is missing out by keeping its market illegal: lawmakers project sports wagering could generate around $35 million in annual tax revenues for the state.

In regards to a collegiate sports betting provision, Gov. Baker has said he would support it depending on the bill’s language. Massachusetts could ultimately find a middle ground on this issue by banning betting only on their own state college or university athletic programs, as other states grappling with this challenge did.

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