WHEN THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE held a two-day hearing on sports betting legislation in 2019, the games had only been legal nationwide for about a year, and fewer than a dozen states were allowing sports betting.
As the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted life and legislative business for most of 2020, sports betting remained on the sidelines and never made it into law last legislative session.
The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies is holding another hearing on sports betting this Thursday, with 19 bills under consideration. These include a bill by Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports allowing sports betting, and another one by the co-chair of the committee, Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat.
The biggest difference in the debate this time around is the national context. At least 31 states have now authorized sports betting, and others have bills at various stages of consideration. States that have legalized sports betting include nearly all of Massachusetts’ neighbors: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York.
That provides a competitive reason for Massachusetts to allow sports betting, since residents can always drive across the border. It also gives Massachusetts a chance to learn from other states.
“More time has gone by where you can see what’s worked in other states and compare the different states to each other,” Lesser said in an interview.
Lesser said three years ago, when the Supreme Court overturned a ban on sports betting and local lawmakers first started talking about the issue, sports betting was brand new. Now, Lesser said, “I believe we’ve seen from other states that it can be done safely, and it can be done in a way that protects the integrity of sports.”
Lesser added that there was also in the past more disagreement among the players’ leagues and among various operators about how sports betting should work and how it should be implemented. Now, there is a bit more consensus as more states are legalizing it and the sector has stabilized.
From a legislative perspective, lawmakers already worked through some of their concerns last session, when the House passed sports betting as part of its version of an economic development bill. But Lesser noted that with the new legislative session, all proposals will be on the table again.
One interesting wrinkle to the debate was raised at a hearing on racial equity Monday, when Springfield Rep. Orlando Ramos, a Democrat, advocated for his own sports betting proposal, which would let bars and restaurants host games, rather than just casinos and digital apps. Ramos said that is the only way for business owners of color to benefit from the industry.
There are also different players in the Legislature today. House Speaker Ron Mariano, who replaced Speaker Robert DeLeo last December, is an outspoken supporter of sports betting.
That said, Senate President Karen Spilka, who has been in power since 2018, is more skittish about the policy. Spilka opposed a 2010 bill to legalize casino gambling, though she helped redraft the version of it that passed in 2011. Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, another key player in the debate, is also a past opponent of casino gambling.
So what is the line on sports betting passing this session? According to Lesser: “The odds are getting better as we go.”