IN A HIGHLY UNUSUAL MOVE, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday voted for a bill legalizing sports betting by voice vote – sparing individual senators the need to record their position through a roll call vote and denying constituents the opportunity to know where each senator stands.
Eric Lesser, the Senate chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, disputed the fact that the public does not know their senator’s stance. “The public does know how senators voted because there were multiple amendments and there was debate for hours throughout the day,” Lesser said.
Under Senate rules, Lesser said, any senator could have called for a roll call. But he said by the time the amendments were debated “there was broad consensus,” and in the four years since the Supreme Court legalized sports betting, there was “a pretty exhaustive process” leading up to the vote.
“We were getting towards the end of things and people felt like it was in a good place. And so…we didn’t feel it was necessary,” Lesser said of a roll call. “At that point, people felt comfortable with where the bill was. There really wasn’t any opposition.”
Lesser joined Father Richard McGowan, a Boston College finance professor who is a national expert on legalized gambling on this week’s Codcast to discuss the recent Senate vote on sports betting – and the chance sports betting will be legalized this year.
McGowan gave sports betting a 70 to 80 percent chance of the House and Senate coming to an agreement that is signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. “Let’s face it, you might as well,” McGowan said. “All the neighboring states have it. So why not bring it back to Massachusetts?”
Lesser, who will likely play a major role negotiating a final bill, wouldn’t put odds on his chances of success. “All I’ll say is that we’ve been working on it for several years now and there’s growing consensus,” Lesser said. “The Senate, for the first time, did a stand-alone bill on the floor. And we’ll see where it goes.”
There are several major differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The Senate envisions a higher tax rate and additional consumer protections, like a ban on betting with credit cards. The Senate bill is estimated to raise $35 million annually in revenue, while the House bill would raise an estimated $60 million. The House bill would allow betting on college sports, while the Senate would not.
House Speaker Ron Mariano has called not allowing betting on college sports a dealbreaker.
But Lesser said there are big differences between college and professional sports. College athletes aren’t paid and don’t have players associations to protect their interests. Most professional leagues support sports betting. But, Lesser said, “The colleges have told us that they don’t want betting on their campuses and they don’t believe that betting and a betting culture is an environment that they want with their athletes or with their student populations.”
In states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, where college sports teams have large followings, McGowan said college sports betting is a huge deal. But, in Massachusetts, people are much more focused on professional sports. Other than March Madness, McGowan said, “I don’t think there’s really that great of a demand” for betting on college sports.
Even without betting on college games, McGowan anticipates that sports betting will “cause a real problem for some of the colleges,” where officials will have to decide if they want to block sports betting through college internet connections.
Baker and Mariano have long been pushing Senate President Karen Spilka to bring sports betting to a vote, and the president still has not said whether she personally supports it. Asked on Wednesday, Spilka refused to give her position. “It doesn’t matter whether I support it, it matters whether the senators, and the Senate as a whole supports it,” Spilka said.
Asked what took the Senate so long, Lesser said, “This is still a gambling product and a lot of members of the Senate are concerned about expanding gambling.” Lesser said it took time to develop robust consumer protections – like the credit card ban, limits on advertising, and a self-exclusion list – that make those senators more comfortable.
McGowan said this concern has been born out in other states – for example, New Jersey saw its level of problem gambling double from 2 percent of players to 4 percent due to online betting. Despite that, McGowan said there has been a national trend toward allowing more controversial practices, like gambling, as long as they do not hurt anyone other than potentially the person choosing to participate. “It took over 30 years for 30 states to have a lottery. It took less than three years for 30 states to have sports gambling,” McGowan said.