fter five months of negotiations, lawmakers in Massachusetts reached a last-minute deal on Wednesday morning on a nearly $627 million economic development bill which includes housing production incentives, small business grants, and vocational school funding, but no sports betting legalization.
But wagering on sporting events was not the only gambling-related matter left on the cutting room floor, as negotiators also scrapped plans to have the Gaming Commission take a serious look at the circumstances around the one casino license left unissued in the state.
The bill was swiftly advanced through the House and Senate overnight, as lawmakers repeatedly extended the end of session using pandemic-era emergency rules, Mass Live reports. They enacted the bill and prepared to send it to the governor’s desk after 4 a.m. Baker has 10 days to sign the bill or can choose not to sign it, effectively killing the proposal in what’s known as a “pocket veto.”
"This bill was really about COVID relief. It’s about getting money and getting support out the door to the businesses and the families and the communities that have been most impacted by the COVID recession," said Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and a key negotiator on the bill.
Sports betting quickly became a highly anticipated provision in the “Christmas tree” bill as the standalone bill stalled in the Legislature. The House folded the proposal into the jobs bill in July, but the Senate didn’t. Sen. Eric Lesser and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said at the time they didn’t want to pack a complicated sports betting plan in massive economic development bill.
More than five months later, it seems the Senate’s inclination to hold off on sports betting won out in negotiations.
"On one hand, I’ve been surprised at Massachusetts’ inability to get this done, simply because there are a number of key stakeholders who want to get this done. On the other hand, a lot of those stakeholders do have differing visions for what sports betting should look like," said Chris Grove, an industry analyst, and partner at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. "Getting those visions aligned is a process that can stretch out indefinitely, depending on how hard everyone wants to dig in."
Lawmakers and Baker have pushed for a legal sports betting market in Massachusetts since the U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that states can legalize the practice. Legislators have projected sports betting could bring in roughly $25 million a year, while Baker projected $35 million in state tax revenue in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal.
But opposition from gambling opponents and progressives who argue sportsbooks would profit off of the working-class made the proposal unpopular in some parts of the Legislature. While the sports betting proposal gained traction, proponents disagreed over whether the bill should prioritize casino owners who are licensed for gaming in the state, mobile sports betting operators, pro sports teams or a combination of the three.
The biggest challenge for launching a legal sports betting market wasn’t the opposition to gambling as much as disagreements about who should participate. Casino operators supported a legal market that prioritizes existing gaming license holders (i.e. casino owners). Online sports betting companies, especially Boston-based DraftKings, sought to capitalize on a new market, touting their experience in other states, while professional sports leagues and teams fought for access to licenses, at least through partnerships with the online companies.
Meanwhile, keno operators in Massachusetts criticized lawmakers for leaving them out of the process altogether, despite the differences between managing keno games from a tavern and running a sportsbook that could potentially track wagers on games across multiple professional sports leagues.
"You have competing visions around who gets to offer sports betting, and I think that’s arguably the largest point of divergence around stakeholders," Grove said. "Honestly, this is not terribly surprising in so much that states that have authorized sports betting to date have taken very different approaches on this question."
Plan to explore third Massachusetts casino
The state's 2011 expanded gaming law gave the Gaming Commission the power to grant up to three resort casino licenses. So far, two have been awarded -- to MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett. Region C -- the commission's name for Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties -- has been an unsettled matter for the commission for years.
Ever since the Gaming Commission rejected a commercial casino proposal in Brockton in 2016, questions have lingered over whether a developer would put up the minimum $500 million for a casino that would face competition from the three gaming facilities already open here and nearby casinos in other states. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the possibility that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe could revive its plan for a $1 billion casino in Taunton regardless of whether the Gaming Commission decides to reopen the process to license a third resort casino in Massachusetts, the Herald News reports.
Rep. Carol Doherty, a Taunton Democrat, co-sponsored language that was included in the House's economic development bill in July that would have required the Gaming Commission to produce "an evaluation of economic conditions within region C and surrounding areas with respect to the region's ability to sustain" a resort casino and an evaluation of the likelihood that a resort casino applicant could submit an application that would provide value to the region before 2024.
The Gaming Commission has addressed Region C in fits and starts in recent years, but in early 2020 sought answers to specific and business-related questions around a potential market analysis of Region C through a formal request for information. The pandemic upended the commission's plans to review the feedback it received, but the commission has said it still intends to delve more deeply into the matter.