The Massachusetts legislature is considering whether to significantly expand gambling for the first time since Las Vegas-style casinos were legalized in the state in 2011.
Two days of hearings are underway at the State House that will focus on whether Massachusetts should allow wagering on sports events, and if so, in what form should it take.
The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies will hear from stakeholders including the state’s casino operators, online fantasy sports companies, the state lottery, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. On Wednesday, the committee will take testimony from the general public.
"Its very complicated," said Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, the co-chair of the committee. He has been trying to tamp down speculation that a bill might be passed in time for people to place legal wagers during the upcoming football season.
"I think in Massachusetts we want to be deliberate, we want to be thorough and I think we want a product and a law that is fashioned that takes all these nuances into consideration," Lesser said in an interview.
In addition to the basic question of whether sports betting should be legalized and where and how bets could be placed, Lesser said there are other issues: a tax rate, ensuring the integrity of the wagers, and whether the sports leagues should be compensated for putting on the events people are placing bets on.
" And there are potentially enormous social consequences to the decisions that are made, so we are going to be deliberate and judicious about how we approach it," said Lesser.
The move toward sports betting came as a result of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law that had banned sports betting except in Nevada.
Eight states, including Rhode Island, currently allow sports betting and more including New York and Connecticut are moving toward it.
Earlier this year, Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill to legalize sports betting at the state’s casinos and online with fantasy sports operators, such as Boston-based DraftKings. Baker, initially, said he would like the legislature to act before the August recess, but last week he acknowledged that was unlikely.
"Its a big decision, and I get the legislature's desire to have a traditional committee process -- hearings, deliverations, input from a whole bunch of different parties," said Baker. " That is typically the way they make decisions and I respect that."
Baker included $35 million in revenue from sports betting in his fiscal year 2020 state budget to be earmarked as local aid. But sports betting revenue was not included in the state budget bills passed by the House and Senate.
While the state’s casinos have lobbied for legal sports betting, it is not calculated to have a big impact on their bottom line. MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis has described a sports book as an amenity that would attract more people to visit the casino.
"We want to make sure there is a sense of urgency because of the impact it will have on the business and on the Commonwealth in terms of keeping that business in the state," Mathis said in an interview.
In testimony prepared for delivery at the committee hearing, the operators of the state’s three casinos, MGM Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor, and Plainridge Park said the casinos should partner with online fantasy sports companies to offer legal sports wagering in Massachusetts.