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Mass. State Sen. Eric Lesser discusses sports betting compromise

 U.S. Rep Richard Neal (D-MA1) endorsed State Senator Eric Lesser's bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts at an event in front of Union Station in Springfield on July 25th, 2022.
Paul Tuthill
U.S. Rep Richard Neal (D-MA1) endorsed State Senator Eric Lesser's bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts at an event in front of Union Station in Springfield on July 25th, 2022.

While Mets and Yankees fans in New York have gotten used to placing sports wagers this year, Massachusetts has remained one of the last Northeast states without legal sports betting. But that is likely to change soon, after lawmakers hammered out a compromise bill in the late hours of the legislative session. WAMC spoke Monday with Massachusetts state Sen. Eric Lesser.

So sports betting was obviously one of the headline issues to come out of the last moments of the session. What made the difference at this point?

Well, I think it's just what you pointed out in your intro, we now have five of our neighbors, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, all with legal sports betting, almost every state in the Northeast Corridor now has legal sports betting up and running. At the end of the day, we can't be an island, we can't wall ourselves off, we have to have some level of coordination with our neighboring states. And we've also seen from the years now that those states have been up and running, that it can be done in a safe way and in a way that helps you know, address issues like addiction and consumer protection that always come up when you're dealing with gambling.

You were one of the lead negotiators on this. What is in the final package now that you've compromised the Senate and House versions?

Well, it's a really great package. And everybody seems to be very happy with it, which is rare sometimes in legislative negotiations. The bill will allow for legal sports wagering on all professional sports, as well as almost all college sports. The only exception will be colleges in Massachusetts. However, if those colleges participate in tournaments, like for example, March Madness, betting would be allowed at that point. One of the biggest issues, Ian, that was holding up negotiations was all the division one schools, all 10 Division I programs in Massachusetts, were actually, you know, pretty publicly and adamantly saying that they didn't want gambling happening on their campuses or with their players. That was a very important consideration for the Senate. So I think the compromise we reached got at that, while allowing betting, you know, on obviously, pro teams, but also, you know, the vast majority of college programs, you know, that at this point are big business all around the country.

Is it your understanding that Governor Baker is ready to sign this?

We certainly hope so. He certainly has signaled publicly that he's ready to sign sports betting, he had his own sports betting legislation that he's now filed for several years. Obviously, you don't know until it's final. But, our hope is, and every expectation is that he will sign it now that we've sent it to him.

What kind of timeline do you think we're looking at for actual implementation? I know MGM Springfield built an entire sports book, you know, on the expectation that at some point, it would become legal. But you know, here in New York, there was quite the runup to sports betting vendors being allowed to get started.

Yeah, so a really good question. So the bill is, takes effect immediately after the governor's signature. But the big piece that will take some time to implement is the licensing and the applications for the licensing, which will be run by the Gaming Commission. They are prepared, the Gaming Commission has been in coordination with us in terms of reviewing drafts, following along, as you know, as the negotiations go. And at this point they've been now following the debate for several years. So substantively, they're very prepared. They know the issues, but it will take them some time to kind of get the infrastructure up and going, to get the applications going for the licenses and then to issue the licenses. But our hope is, is that it could it could happen as soon as this fall.

Given the fact that so many of the neighboring states, as you mentioned, are already up and running, what kind of revenue projections are there for what mobile sports betting could bring to the state?

That's a bit of a moving target, because it depends on you know, just you know how much the sector now settles now that you have, you know, legal betting in almost every state in our region. The high kind of estimate is about $80 million a year in new in new tax revenue. The lower end estimates are around 25 or $30 million. So, you know, assuming are at the higher end of that it's a significant new revenue stream, but it's important to keep that in context. I mean the lottery, for example, brings back over a billion dollars a year. So, the argument for it was never as much about bringing in tax revenue as it was about bringing in a new economic development tool and also just a new form of recreation for people that's become very popular across the country.

Are there things that you have picked up on that the neighboring states have gone through that serve as maybe warnings about the onset of sports betting in Massachusetts, having come relatively late to it?

Absolutely, I think our bill is one of the strongest in the country precisely because we waited and we learned so much from our neighbors. One of the biggest things we learned is to try to keep the market as open and competitive as possible. So we're going to have a fairly high number of licenses and several different types of licenses, including, you know, brick and mortar at traditional casinos in person, including all digital, some hybrid versions of that. The idea is to try to create as much competition as possible so that different operators are competing with each other, to give the best product to consumers. The other very important thing that we've incorporated that has not been done in all of our neighboring states is a very strong consumer protections. This law will ban the use of credit cards, which was a very important priority of the Senate to try to avoid, you know, people racking up massive credit card bills or falling into debt. And it also is going to include a ban on biometric data, which we viewed as kind of a bridge too far, you know, knowing players heart rate or pulse for example, before placing a bet. We also include some very important limitations on advertising, especially targeting to minors, and we give the gaming commission you know, pretty significant powers to enforce, you know, consumer protections and advertising.

Let's shift gears here. What else should people know about that came together in that marathon, overnight last few hours of the session?

Well, particularly important for our neck of the woods is we have very significant progress on West-East rail service. We did a big transportation bond package that included a $275 million bond authorization for preparatory work on the East-West service from Pittsfield to Boston. This is a very big deal, something I've been working on for nearly a decade, it's important because it's going to help unlock much larger pools of federal money that are now available as a result of the Biden infrastructure plan. So for people in, you know, in New York or in Western Massachusetts, that is a very big deal because that that project is now gaining some momentum.

We also know Governor Baker signed a budget at long last. He says the state is in really good financial shape right now. Do you agree?

Absolutely. We're at record high revenues. As a state, our rainy day fund has been fully replenished after COVID and is actually at the highest levels. It's been in a long time. And it's been allowing us to do some very important proactive investments, including things like the prep-work on East-West rail service, and significant new funding, for example, to help with our childcare workforce. Our nursing staffs, important investments in housing, which we know is a continuing stress point for people, and also in climate change and environmental protection. So, the state for now is in very good fiscal shape. But we do always have to keep an eye on the bond rating, and the stabilization fund and there will inevitably be a recession, there always is, we need to make sure the state's prepared for that.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about your campaign for lieutenant governor. As we speak, it's early August, the primary is coming up in September. What do you have to do between now and then to win?

Just meet and talk to a million voters or more all across the state. It's going great, it's a lot of fun. Just traveling all over. You know, I think especially for people in Central Western Massachusetts, the Berkshires, it's very important that we have a regional voice at the highest levels of state government. You know, Massachusetts is a unique state because our population center and our political center are all in the same place. That's not the case in New York, right? You have Albany and New York City, Vermont, you've got Burlington and Montpelier. So, in Massachusetts, we've got to really be intentional about regional representation. I think I would offer that as a partner to Maura Healey, as lieutenant governor to a Maura Healey administration. And I think I have the receipts of having worked for a very long time on really important issues for our region like rail service, both North-South and to New York and East-West to Boston and those are items that I really want to focus on as lieutenant governor.

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