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Don't do an end run around the voters on sports betting, Maryland

Don't do an end run around the voters on sports betting, Maryland
A gambler makes a sports bet at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City N.J. last October. (Wayne Parry / AP)
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last spring striking down a longstanding federal ban on sports gambling has naturally set off something of a rush by states to consider legalized wagering on professional sporting events like National Football League and Major League Baseball games. Last month, the D.C. Council upped the ante when it voted to legalize such wagering, with the expectation that in the not-too-distant future, a mobile phone app will allow individuals to place a bet on sporting events whenever they are within the legal boundaries of the nation’s capital. Delaware, which has had a limited form of sports wagering for years, was the first to expand its sports betting options after the Supreme Court ruling. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are in the sports betting business as well, and Virginia’s legislature is expected to consider it this year.

This flurry of activity has apparently caused a kind of collective amnesia in Annapolis, where lawmakers have conveniently forgotten the promises they made to voters when Maryland legalized slot machine gambling a decade ago. Back then, they backed an amendment to the state constitution that says, among other things, “The General Assembly may only authorize additional forms or expansion of commercial gaming if approval is granted through a referendum, authorized by an act of the General Assembly, in a general election by a majority of the qualified voters in the State.” Now, though, that’s become inconvenient. Squabbling between private interests looking to cash in on sports betting scuttled an effort to get a referendum on the ballot in 2018, and another couldn’t be considered until 2020. So what are lawmakers to do? The Sun’s Jeff Barker reports that legislators and gaming lobbyists are trying an end run around voters by exploring the idea that sports betting could be authorized as if it were a new lottery game, which would not be subject to the referendum requirement.

Pardon us, but, no, sports betting is not like a new lottery game. Not in any way, shape or form, and pretending otherwise is not at all what Marylanders voted for in 2008. And thinking Maryland can bring sports betting online sooner by lawyering its way around the plain text of the constitution is asinine. If we’ve learned anything from our experience with gambling so far, it’s that however we set up the rules, they will produce winners and losers, and the losers will sue. The only shortcut this approach offers is to years of litigation.

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We shouldn’t be in such a rush anyway. The sports wagering movement raises all kinds of questions, some practical, some philosophical. Where should sports betting be allowed? At casinos? At racetracks? At any vendor of lottery tickets? How much should it be taxed? Should we allow online or mobile sports betting (the only way the practice would be more convenient for bettors than the illegal status quo)? And if so, who should control (and profit from) that business? More broadly, will widespread legal sports gambling change the nature of professional sports in this country (for instance, raise the prospects of bribery, point shaving and fixing scandals like the infamous Black Sox scandal that plagued the 1919 World Series)? And, perhaps most important, might such an activity so broaden interest and enthusiasm for betting that gambling addiction will spike and families (and their finances) will be devastated?

This much has changed in the decade since voters approved slot machines by ratifying a constitutional amendment, gaming has become a big business in this state. Maryland’s six casinos are a major source of tax revenue (that keeps growing and growing). In the last fiscal year, the casinos and the state lottery combined to generate more than $1.2 billion in income for the state, a record amount. Sports betting could expand that figure, but how much is uncertain. Sports betting has never been a big part of the business at Las Vegas casinos (where it has been legal for decades), but casino operators say it will bring more people in the door, and they’ll stick around to play the slots and table games. That’s good for the casinos. Is there a point at which it’s no longer good for the state?

Instead of trying to be among the first states to accept sports wagering (outside Nevada and a handful of other locations where it already exists), Maryland needs to exercise some caution — much as lawmakers did more than a decade ago with slot machines, which were debated for years. Instead of pushing through a legalization bill in the coming weeks, legislators and Gov. Larry Hogan would be far better off to commit themselves to making any legalization subject to a referendum and this year create a bipartisan task force to more closely study the issue and report back before the 2020 legislative session.

No doubt some gambling enthusiasts will suggest Maryland has been too cautious in the past and stands to lose market share as gamblers gravitate to out-of-state venues or online options. Fantasy web sites like DraftKings are already quite popular. But if the slot machine and casino experience teaches anything, it’s that the money — and impact — involved is simply too enormous to take lightly. The gaming industry knows how to make money, but it’s up to government to guard against the inevitable excesses that go along with the business. Better to get it right then get it first.

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