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State Representatives Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and Alec Garnett, D-Denver, want to put Colorado sports betting to a statewide vote in 2019. That likely would mean no sports wagering until 2020.
“It seems to me it’s a no-brainer. We should have the conversation to see if this is something we as a state want to do.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to move forward without getting voter support:
“I think it’s important to go back to the voters and make sure it’s something that they want.”
This is despite a legal opinion from Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued in August this year. She set out the legal explanation why Colorado sports betting is not banned under the state constitution:
“While Article XVIII, Section 2 imposes various restrictions on “lotteries,” commercial sports betting does not qualify as a lottery. The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that betting on horse and dog races is not a lottery, and there is no material difference between betting on horse and dog races and betting on other types of sporting events. Commercial sports betting therefore falls outside the restrictions in Article XVIII, Section 2.”
Wist acknowledges the opinion but thinks that the state’s legislative history makes it imperative to give voters a say:
“I think there are reasons legally why we don’t have to, but we have to be respectful of that history.”
In 2014, there was a hard-fought battle over a bill to allow gambling at racetracks. At the time, gambling was only legal in the towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. Those are remote towns west of Denver in the Rocky Mountains.
The issue did not go well with voters. A full 70 percent of the vote was against the proposal.
Since then, Colorado has legalized daily fantasy sports (DFS). Even so, Wist and Garnett think the level of opposition was so high, it would be unwise to move forward on sports betting without a popular vote.
“It was a brutal fight between businesses that played out with the electorate in 2014,” Garnett said. “We have to create some compromise here, so that doesn’t happen again.”
In the political climate of today, it is unusual to see strong bipartisan relationships between politicians of opposing parties. The fact that Wist is a Republican and Garnett a Democrat could raise support for legislation.
Sports betting is an issue that appears to cross political boundaries. There are passionate supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle.
Wist told Colorado Public Radio that a bipartisan approach was best:
“I think the best way is to come together, let’s figure out what we believe is the right balance, and go ask voters, ‘do we think this is going to work?’”
Even with political support, Colorado still has a tough road.
There is little support for a broad online gambling bill, and plenty of support for keeping gambling in the three towns where it is currently legal.
Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek are not easy to access, especially in winter. Without online access, or authorization for new casinos, the potential revenues will be small. And the Colorado Gaming Association has made clear it expects those casinos to have the exclusive right to offer sports betting, absent a new agreement.
If a popular vote on sports betting gives politicians the confidence to act, they will have to tackle these problems.
The Republican candidate for governor, Walker Stapleton, wants to see Colorado sports betting taxed and regulated. He has suggested that a tax rate of 15 percent could generate a billion dollars a year.
His priority for the money would be to use it to fix the roads:
“I want to fix the problem that I think is most acute, and the problem I think is most acute and that I think will most negatively affect Colorado’s economy is I-25 and I-70.”
A billion a year could be something of an overestimate. Colorado’s population of 5.6 million is around 60 percent the size of New Jersey’s.
New Jersey has sports betting both in casinos and online, and it is looking a long way short of raising a billion in tax over the next 12 months.
Of course, Stapleton would have to win first. The latest poll has Stapleton 12 points behind his Democratic opponent, Jared Polis.