Betting that the U.S. Supreme Court may soon approve sports gambling, Maryland lawmakers are advancing bills to ask voters in November whether the state should allow wagering on everything from college basketball to professional football.
The House of Delegates approved a bill Thursday that calls for placing a referendum on November’s ballot that asks voters to approve or reject a policy to allow sports wagering at the state’s casinos and racetracks.
The legislation, which passed on a 124-14 vote, would prepare the state for the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might rule as soon as next month on a New Jersey case that could clear the way for all states to allow commercial gambling on sports events.
Supporters of the proposed legislation say Maryland’s licensed gambling establishments would be at a competitive disadvantage if the state is not prepared to react quickly to a ruling in favor of sports betting.
“We specifically want any money from sport betting to go to the Education Trust Fund,” said Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat and sponsor of the House bill. That is the same fund that receives most of the state’s share of money generated from casino gambling.
Del. Mary Washington opposes the proposed expansion of gambling in Maryland as a way to support public schools. Slot machines, table games and other state-sanctioned gambling “end up being a tax on the poor,” Washington said.
“I don’t really believe in an expansion of gaming as a policy for funding public education,” the Baltimore Democrat said.
The question would appear as a referendum on the ballot only if the Supreme Court opens the door to sports betting.
The high court is considering a challenge by New Jersey to the federal Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act, which bars commercial sports gambling in all but a handful of states that allowed it before adoption of the law in 1992. Only Nevada and Delaware currently authorize sports betting.
A committee in the Maryland Senate is considering a bill that is similar to the one approved by the House. Unlike the House bill, the Senate proposal does not explicitly include or exclude racetracks among the venues eligible for the licenses.
Turner said both racetracks and casinos should be allowed to offer sports betting.
“We’ve got to do something to attract people to the racetracks,” he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he thinks the public would be open to allowing sports betting but added that he has heard concerns about allowing it at racetracks. He did not specify those concerns and said the Senate would give the House bill a hearing.
Turner said he’s not aware of any attempt by casino interests to sideline the tracks.
“Are they trying to cut them out?” Turner said. “They’ve not really opposed it in the hearings — at least not vocally anyway.”
The Senate has several options. It could wait and see whether the Supreme Court will act before the end of the General Assembly session in April. It could pass the bill sponsored by Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat. It could turn down both bills. Or it could take up Turner’s version with amendments.
In either form, the legislation would require the General Assembly to pass implementing legislation if voters approve the ballot question. That means the earliest bettors might be able to wager on sports legally in Maryland would be in mid-2019.
King said her bill deliberately does not specify whether casinos or racetracks can be awarded sports betting licenses. She said the legislature can decide that question next year if voters approve a ballot question.
Anticipating a possible decision in favor of New Jersey, several states have taken steps to prepare.
West Virginia recently adopted legislation that would permit sports betting at its five licensed gambling sites if the Supreme Court overrules the federal ban. Unlike in Maryland, where the state constitution requires that voters approve any expansion of legal gambling, lawmakers there determined that they did not need to wait for a referendum.
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Supporters of the Maryland bill point out that if the state doesn’t authorize a referendum in November, the state wouldn’t be able to hold a vote until 2020. That means that even if voters said yes, the expansion could not take place until sometime in late 2021 at the earliest.
Put another way, Maryland gambling venues would miss out on the Super Bowl — the premier sports betting event — in 2020 and 2021.
If allowed in Maryland, sports betting is not expected to generate a financial windfall. According to the Department of Legislative Services, sports betting accounts for only 2 percent of total gambling revenue in Nevada. Last year Maryland earned $1.7 billion in revenue from casinos, $531 million of which was directed to the Education Trust Fund.
Legislative analysts point out that estimates of Maryland’s potential revenue from sports gambling vary wildly. They pointed to forecasts from Global Market Advisors ranging from $13.7 million to $182.1 million annually if sports betting was legal.
If the Senate passes either bill, the matter could go to a conference committee with the House.