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Massachusetts Senate OKs sports wagering bill

MGM_sports_lounge.jpg
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
This new sports lounge in the MGM Springfield casino is designed to seamlessly incorporate sports betting if it becomes legal in Massachusetts, MGM officials said.

Sen. Lesser calls legal sports betting "a big cultural change."

Years after initially being introduced, legislation to legalize sports betting has passed the Massachusetts Senate.

There is a key difference between the bill the Senate approved on a voice-vote Thursday night and one that passed the House last year -- the Senate’s version would not permit wagers on college sports.

A conference committee will now try to find a compromise before the legislative session ends this July.

Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow is the Senate’s point person on sports wagering. He spoke with WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill.

Sen. Eric Lesser

Well, I think we have a very good bill, that's going to create a very good product and a safe product for people to legally legally bet on professional sports. So, as a result of this bill, people will be able to place bets both online or in person, on the Patriots on the Red Sox, the Celtics, any professional team in any of the big major sports. So that's a really big change for our state a big cultural change. And I think it's going to unlock a lot of new opportunities for business development for jobs. And also it's going to collect some important tax revenue to help support all all our other vital services like health care and education.

Paul Tuthill 

Now, where will this betting be taking place? Would it be just in the casinos online, or both?

Sen. Eric Lesser

It would be both and potentially some new locations as well. So we create two different types of licenses. One is a license through the existing brick and mortar casinos we have in the state, the other type of license would be granted based on a competitive process through the Gaming Commission. And it would have to require some type of brick and mortar physical element, we thought that was important, especially to help stimulate, you know, the jobs, the tourism, the travel industry, that's been so hard hit, of course, over the last two years by COVID, but then would also be linked to a digital license, which would allow people to bet, you know, either on their phones or computers, or, you know, somehow doing it through through digital digital methods.

Paul Tuthill 

So the gaming commission would be in charge of all of this?

Sen. Eric Lesser

Correct, the gaming commission would authorize them, we created a set of criteria that the gaming commission would look at, when issuing the licenses. First off, we require that each geographic region in the state gets at least one that was an important consideration to make sure that we're spreading the industry out to all different communities. The other very important element is a diversity, equity and inclusion criteria, the Gaming Commission is going to be required by the statute to really evaluate the plans for making sure that this industry is hiring diverse workers is providing pathways for underserved communities. And it's also doing everything it can to help stimulate good jobs and in good investment in underserved regions, and in particular in minority communities.

Paul Tuthill 

Given the fact that, you know, the casinos, obviously, and some of the online players I'm thinking of like DraftKings. They're the you know, they're the big foot in all of this. How do you assure that these that the little players, the minority communities that you mentioned, that they're going to get that they're going to get a piece of this?

Sen. Eric Lesser
Well, that's going to be part of the evaluation process that the Gaming Commission is going to undertake. We allow in the last six new licenses statewide, which is a decent number that puts us about in the midrange of what different states around the country have done just as a counterpoint. New Hampshire and Rhode Island have a solo license in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, there's one operator contracted through the state. So we thought it was important to open that up a bit more, provide some more competition. And one of the things that the Gaming Commission is going to evaluate is, even maybe if there is one of these big well known operators, they're going to have to demonstrate some level of community involvement in partnership with communities in order, frankly, to have a competitive application, because as I mentioned, one of the criteria in addition to diversity, equity, and inclusion is also geographic location. And so you've seen for example, like in New Hampshire, you know, new brick and mortar locations, opening up at the seacoast new sports bars, new entertainment venues. So that's the kind of thing that we would want to see here.

Paul Tuthill 

The House passed a sports betting bill last year. And I know one of the key differences between the Senate version and the House bill is wagering on college sports. That is not allowed under the Senate version. Why?

Sen. Eric Lesser

So, you know, again, this is a been a long process a lot lot of moving pieces, a lot of differences of opinion. We just have many members of the Senate who are very cautious and or, you know, just frankly reluctant to open this market up to college sports. And I think part of the reason is a feeling that college sports and professional sports really are different. You know, I get it. March Madness is a big betting market. Of course, there's a lot of betting that's going on in college sports, but in terms of legalization, from the perspective of a lot of the senators, there was a feeling look, you know, pro teams are, you know, the players are well paid. They're in unions that are protected by you know, strong players associations and in collective bargaining agreements. college athletes aren't we know there's elements of that changing but for the most part are not paid and are not represented by unions or associations or collective bargaining agreements. And also very importantly, the league League's on on the pro side and the players themselves and their associations are really telling us that they're ready to do this, that they've got a lot of experience working in markets all around us in terms of how to do this in a safe and effective way. Whereas every division one school in Massachusetts and their athletic directors have told us that they do not want this betting on their campuses or with their students or with their student athlete population. And that's just something that we've got to take seriously in our state. It's the colleges are telling us that.

Paul Tuthill 

So a conference committee is now going to hold a key as to whether sports wagering will become legal in Massachusetts, whatever, but in keeping with the betting vein, what are the odds for a compromise before the before the legislative session ends in July?

Sen. Eric Lesser
Well, straining the betting analogies here, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna lay any cards on the table here or are given a handicap. But what I will say is, you know, it's gaining momentum, this was a big deal to have the Senate vote on a standalone sports betting package and to approve a standalone sports betting package that would legalize pro pro sports wagering both in person and online. That's a very big change. It's been nearly four years of debate and deliberation since the Supreme Court decision that allowed us to do it. So that that's a really big change. And so, you know, there's there's growing momentum here. Almost all of our neighboring states have it, more than 30 states have it across the country. So I think there's growing consensus that there's a desire to do something.

Paul Tuthill 

Shifting gears, there was an announcement this week by Congressman Richard Neal and Governor Charlie Baker have an agreement on a path forward for East West Rail. It involves the state legislature, creating a new rail authority and also including the project in a transportation bond bill in order to leverage federal funds available from the bipartisan infrastructure law. Do you support this?

Sen. Eric Lesser

I do support this. I was at a meeting where Governor Baker and Congressman Neal and Congressman McGovern discussed this along with many other members of the Western Mass legislative delegation. There's a lot of moving pieces here. And it does seem like setting up a state level authority, especially to collect those federal dollars is going to be an important part of this. We knew that for quite some time now stuff themselves had recommended that but a lot of the details around this authority still need to be worked out. So we committed to a process with the governor and with the State Department of Transportation and with our federal delegation, including US Congressman Neal and Congressman McGovern on on figuring out that past hour, but there was definitely an agreement in principle, which is a big deal. That kind of all, all the various stakeholders here are now kind of in alignment, that we want to get this project moving, which is very exciting news.

Paul Tuthill 

Lastly, apolitics question., A recent UMass Lowell poll on the Democratic race for lieutenant governor had you in second place with a large percentage of likely voters still undecided? What's your reaction to that poll?

Sen. Eric Lesser

I mean, I don't have much of a reaction to it precisely, because I think the main takeaway is what you pointed out, which is the overwhelming majority of people have no opinion yet. And so I think, you know, for me, it's about getting my message out, and getting out to every community around the state both to learn what those communities want to see in their state leaders and also to share some of what we're working on and all the topics you you and I just talked about, making sure we get a world class transportation in our state, in particular, the west east service connecting the biggest cities in our state to each other, working on closing the waitlist, that our vocational schools, which can unlock 1000s and 1000s of jobs, really well paying jobs every year just from doing that, working on the housing crisis, getting more housing built that's close to transit and as green, these are really compelling points that I'm traveling all around the state talking about. And I've got a track record of eight years in the Senate, you know, getting these things done and passed into law. So, you know, to me, it's it's really about about getting to getting to those folks who are still making up their mind or haven't even begun to think about making up their mind and making the case I think we're doing a really good job with that.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.