If Massachusetts decides to legalize sports betting, local legislators think it probably won’t happen fast.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that gave states permission to legalize sports betting, state Reps. Stephen Kulik of Worthington and Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst both expected Massachusetts would explore the issue. But neither believed it would make it onto the agenda before the end of the current session.
“I think it’s something the Legislature is going to look at,” Goldstein-Rose said. “I know the speaker, the Senate president and the governor have all said it’s something they’re interested in and, in Massachusetts Legislature-style, want to move very slowly and deliberately on.”
Kulik had similar expectations.
“I think the Legislature will approach this kind of carefully. It’s nothing that will be rushed into,” he said. “Legislators will want to have a clear understanding what the risks and benefits are of legalizing sports betting in the state. What are the revenues that will be coming into the commonwealth that would help support spending in the state budget? What would be the potential downside for the state lottery, which is a major source of local aid for cities and towns, and would there be any negative impact on that?
“I think it’s going to take some very careful research and deliberation that probably won’t happen any sooner than the next session of the Legislature beginning next January,” Kulik added. “I can’t imagine we rush into anything now in the remaining weeks of the current general session.”
Goldstein-Rose said he isn’t leaning in any direction initially.
“I don’t know what my own personal feelings are. The speaker has talked about this as a potential source of revenue, which they need, but I am no expert on sports gambling,” Goldstein-Rose said. “I would need to look at it a lot before deciding what I would like to see happen, if anything.”
New Jersey brought the issue to the Supreme Court and appears likely to be among the first to legalize. Both legislators thought Massachusetts could benefit from seeing what does and doesn’t succeed in New Jersey.
“As casinos are coming online, we’re very mindful of the effect that has on the state lottery. I think we want to be very judicious in how we approach this. I think watching New Jersey would be very smart,” Kulik said. “There’s X amount of dollars that people want to spend on various forms of gambling. Where is it going to be spent and how can states use that as an economic development impetus and an activity that employs people and creates jobs and also creates revenue for state and local government? You need those kinds of studies.”
That path was followed for marijuana legalization as a delegation visited Colorado on a similar fact-finding mission.
Part of the impetus for Massachusetts choosing to add casinos was to slow the flow of gaming dollars and tax revenues from Massachusetts residents to the two Connecticut casinos. Legalization decisions in nearby states could have a similar impact on whether Massachusetts chooses to legalize betting.
“When we approved and adopted casino gambling in Massachusetts, much of the argument was a lot of Massachusetts residents who gambled were going to Connecticut and spending their money there,” Kulik said. “Their dollars generated economic activity and tax revenues for Connecticut. So a big reason for establishing it in Massachusetts was for Massachusetts residents to spend their gaming dollars closer to home. I think the same would be true in sports betting, for sure.”
The parent companies of all three Massachusetts casinos, including MGM, which plans to open its Springfield casino in August, operate sports books in their Nevada properties. MGM issued a statement supporting the ruling and touting its success operating a sports book.
“MGM Resorts International applauds the Court’s decision to allow states the opportunity to protect consumers and benefit the public by regulating and taxing sports betting. We look forward to working with legislators and policy makers to achieve a regulatory outcome that benefits states and consumers alike while ensuring the integrity of sports.”
Casinos would only be one option for managing sports betting should it be legalized.
In Canada, each provincial government runs sports betting in its province, much like a state lottery.
“I would expect our state lottery would want to look at that possibility and it would make the argument the lottery would be well situated to get involved because of its broad presence across the commonwealth,” Kulik said.
Rachel A. Volberg is an associate professor at UMass in the school of public health and health sciences. She’s the principal investigator leading a team of researchers examining the social and economic impacts associated with the introduction of casino gambling in Massachusetts.
She said from a research standpoint this is largely uncharted territory.
“It would make logical sense that we would expand our work to look at sports betting as well,” she said. “There’s very little research that’s been done in the United States on sports gambling. We’re going to have to see how things play out.”
She said the potential for online betting opens even more questions.
“The challenge for companies and online entities is that you could have different states with different sets of rules and regulations. It’s a challenge to set your business models to match each of them,” Volberg said. “Are they going to permit online operators, who have been vetted in other jurisdictions to apply for licenses to offer sports betting in Massachusetts.”