Can MA lawmakers find common ground to provide legal sports betting for the commonwealth this year?
With just three days before the end of regular session Sunday, Rep. David Muradian knows the pressure is on.
If the conference committee cannot strike a Massachusetts sports betting deal after getting this far, backlash figures to be significant.
“I think if we don’t get a bill done, we have failed the citizens of the commonwealth,” Muradian, a member of the six-person committee, told LSR Thursday afternoon. “I mean, it’s been abundantly clear — for sessions now — that they want it.
“So now it’s up to us to do a bill. And if the conference committee can’t get to a resolution that everyone is in support of, then I’m going to be unbelievably disappointed.”
Can MA conference committee play ‘Let’s Make A Deal?’
So what are the odds it happens?
“We’ll see. I plan on being here until the very wee hours of Sunday night trying to work on it. I’m an eternal optimist. I want something done,” Muradian said. “ … I wish I could say we’re at the 20-yard line and we’re going in. But it’s kind of that weatherman cop-out — 50-50 chance of rain here. Either it happens or it doesn’t. But … I think we owe it to the residents of the commonwealth to get something done.”
In recent days, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have exchanged rhetoric that some in the industry view as a leverage play. Earlier Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker reiterated his hope that he will have a bill to sign. A rep for Mariano told LSR via email Friday morning that conference committee negotiations are ongoing.
Tossup at best?
Nevertheless, skepticism exists.
“I fear that a bill could get done, but only if the House caves on a lot of issues,” one industry source told LSR.
“Everyone’s talking about it, everyone wants it,” Muradian said. “It’s just up to us to now actually come up with a compromise bill that everyone can support.”
MA sports betting issues that need to be solved
Divides between the House and Senate center on issues like college sports betting, the tax rate, number of operators, and a potential advertising ban.
The House wants college sports betting, while the Senate doesn’t. The House has a more operator-friendly tax rate proposal of 15% for mobile and 12.5% for retail, with promo deductions allowed. On the other hand, the Senate has a 35% tax on mobile and 20% tax on retail, with no promo deductions allowed.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to have a competitive tax rate to make it a viable product to operate with in the commonwealth. If you put too high of a tax rate, you’re just going to continue to drive the black market and you’re not going to see the crossover that I think many are hopefully anticipating,” Muradian said.
College ban at the heart
Other states have sports betting bans on in-state college teams, so that is a potential middle ground that could be found — even if it’s less than optimal. College betting likely will make or break the bill.
“If we’re actually going to do (legal sports betting) in the commonwealth — and we pride ourselves in being a leader in this and a leader in that but we’re unbelievably far behind in this — you need to do it the right way which is in my opinion bringing everything out of the shadows, shining a light on the industry, putting safeguards in place and regulate it,” Muradian said of college betting.
“And I do believe it’s the best way to try to protect the student-athlete. Because ultimately we have a responsibility to do that, and I think that sometimes that gets lost.”
Ads as well
The House and Senate also differ on the number of operators and a potential advertising ban.
The Senate bill allowed for nine online sports betting licenses, three to state-licensed casinos. The House bill, meanwhile, did not place a limit on online sports betting licenses.
Two weeks ago, Massachusetts pro teams sent a letter to lawmakers requesting they “reject the Senate’s proposed complete ban on advertising during game telecasts, as well as several other ad restrictions included in the Senate bill.”
MA bettors already finding sports betting options
As of now, Massachusetts bettors must head to surrounding states, unregulated offshore accounts or their local bookie to place wagers. As a result, the state loses out on revenue while being unable to adequately track problem gamblers who need help.
Will that still be the case entering 2023? Or will there soon be plans coming out for a retail sportsbook next to Fenway Park?
“I’m willing to meet morning, noon, night, anytime to talk about this bill,” Muradian said. “I want to get this done, I know the House wants to get it done. I believe in my heart of hearts, the senate does too. Now it’s just about trying to get us all in a room, or continue sharing proposals back and forth via email. … It’s a very fluid situation.”