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When it comes to the legalization of sports wagering in the US, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone more passionate about the subject than Delegate Shawn Fluharty.
While he wasn’t the lead sponsor on a sports betting law that West Virginia enacted last week, he is one of the reasons WV became the first state to pass such a law in 2018.
He introduced legislation last year that helped spark the conversation in the state, which studied the issue afterwards. The end result: West Virginia will have legal sports wagering if the US Supreme Court strikes down the federal ban on single-game betting.
Fluharty recently talked with Legal Sports Report about the WV sports betting law.
LSR: So obviously sports betting is an issue that is near and dear to your heart. I just wanted to know what you feel like about the process the final result, and about the prospect of West Virginians being able to wager soon.
Fluharty: Well, it was a process, and at the time knowing that when I first introduced it, the process would be getting the build-up so maybe we could come in the following year and get it passed. And I am happy to report that it worked out perfectly, when I first introduced it, it got a lot of attention. You got a hold of it and other media outlets, it helped kind of prolong the conversation.
So we were able to start the conversation a year ago, keep it going and build the momentum, so when we hit session in January of this year we were able to come in and essentially have a working product in place because of the media attention, combined with efforts to have West Virginia lottery and casinos on board, having the conversation well before we got into session.
So by the time we got here we had a working product that we were able to get through the legislature in really record time, it flew through with little opposition. And we were able to get a lot of legislators on board with it and educate them on the issue.
LSR: Tell me a little bit more about that. How much do you chalk up to the work your state did last year to get a bill to the finish line?
Fluharty: If I was to give advice to another state looking to do it, I think building the coalition early, and sparking the conversation and making that conversation continue would be my No. 1 advice.
If you look back on it, it went from into a year ago to conversations beginning to get the people involved that you need involved, so in West Virginia you obviously need the West Virginia Lottery involved. I’ll give credit to Danielle Boyd, who is chief counsel for West Virginia Lottery, she really loved this issue and worked with everyone on it. And we were able to have the conversations between my side legislatively, with the lottery, and then the casinos as well.
You know I have Wheeling Casino in my neck of the woods in the district I represent. The northern panhandle actually has two casinos that will be offering this. And they were on board and willing to have conversations early. We started those conversations last summer and had face-to-face conversations, but just exchanging emails, but actually sitting down and saying “Look this is what it needs to look like.” But if we’re going to get this moving, let’s start now and that set us up for success in January.
But it all started a year ago, and I would emphasize the importance of having that happen. Having eyes and ears on your state, and West Virginia positioned ourselves so people were paying attention to us and that helped keep the conversation going.
LSR: We don’t always see lawmakers and government officials as well prepared as you were, and the lottery was, in helping shepherd legislation along. That must have helped.
Fluharty: I tried to champion this issue early because I really believe economically it’s going to benefit our state and we absolutely need it. Ever since going to law school and loving sports like I do, it’s just a natural combination for me. So ever since we started with this, I took something I was passionate about and educated myself more on it and that really all just kind of came together perfectly.
LSR: Do you think your fellow lawmakers were happy with the end result?
Fluharty: I think so, it went through the committee process in both chambers. I am minority vice chair on Judiciary, and we had good bipartisan support on that committee, and going into it I thought that could be an issue.
And we really had bipartisan support throughout the whole process, and I think having other legislators get involved in understanding how this issue could really help West Virginia helped. We have a young group of legislators here and that was beneficial because we’re tired of being last in everything we do. In West Virginia, we always seem to be the last state to jump on board with everything.
So this was an issue that I was able to be vocal about early on and say look our neighboring states, you know Pennsylvania they already screwed [their sports betting law] up, but our neighboring states they’re not on board yet. We could get in on the ground level and make economic gains here that we may not be able to five years from now. So that perfect storm with the necessity to be first in and also with the Supreme Court on the brink of hopefully ruling in our favor, it really came together.
LSR: Were you surprised by the lobbying from the NBA and Major League Baseball against the bill?
Fluharty: I was surprised by how heavy they came in. Because they hired Larry Puccio, who has been a big player on the lobbying side of things and he was part of the (Gov. Jim) Justice administration transition team. And obviously, if you’re going to come in and find somebody, that’s the guy you want.
So obviously the leagues came in really hot and heavy on West Virginia, and you would think because we’re a small state they wouldn’t really have us on their radar. But I think they’re worried about a domino effect, that we’re the first state in (with sports betting) and we don’t have an integrity fee, and then they’re going to see the domino effect of other states saying “West Virginia doesn’t have it, why would we?”
So they made their advances in the legislature but at the end of the day, they weren’t able to convince the body as a whole that this integrity fee had any merit to it whatsoever. And I don’t think they’re going to. I know the governor has made some remarks in recent days about the integrity fee and a possible special session on the issue.
But I don’t think that’s going to come to fruition and I think he’s doing a balancing act, because he has relationships with the NFL, the New Orleans Saints hold their training camp at The Greenbrier, which he owns, he has connections I’d assume with Major League Baseball as well, as much as they’ve been in the state. So he’s doing what he has to do on that side of the coin, but we don’t have a Major League Baseball team here, we don’t have an NFL team here, and you’re not going to find many legislators who are going to say, “Wait a minute, we’re going to allow money that could remain in West Virginia, we’re going to allow that to go out of the state to help leagues who aren’t helping us any other way?”
So I don’t think you’re going to find much traction on that tissue. If anything, possibly if he’s dead set on having an integrity fee, then it should go directly to WVU and Marshall, because those are the only two entities that will be bet on inside of West Virginia that we actually have to worry about it. So I don’t see how we’ll ever see money going to the leagues in my opinion.
LSR: From listening to the conversation there in hearings and the media, it sounded like lawmakers were more in favor of keeping more money in the state than sending it elsewhere.
Fluharty: There’s the great example of how during the Super Bowl, if the one percent integrity fee was tied to Nevada, how they wouldn’t have made any money. That’s a great example of how ridiculous this proposition is that we should have an integrity fee going to the leagues.
And you could have situations where we could not see any money. West Virginia could have a big month — for the leagues — if the money is going out, and we may not retain any of that. And if we do it would be a much smaller number because they’re taking it off the handle.
And that’s part of the importance of getting people involved early on this issue, is that they knew what this integrity fee was all about before MLB put the pressure on. Had we not educated other legislators on that issue, then I think they would have had a better chance of having success. But by the time they hired their big guns, it was too late. So that’s a credit to my colleagues on not falling for the tricks of the leagues here.
LSR: How much fun will it be to place that first bet if and when wagering is legal?
Fluharty: I think the first bet I will place will be on West Virginia University to win the college championship next year. That will be my first bet at Wheeling Casino. I am just hoping I can get a cut-out area where I have my own chair whenever I go to the sportsbook.