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Massachusetts Senate to debate sports betting bill this week amid opposing lawmakers' views

Updated: May 5, 2022

The Massachusetts Senate is set to debate legislation to legalize sports betting this Thursday after a wagering bill was advanced out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee last Friday, under a version that estimates $35 million in annual revenue for the Old Bay State. General agreement on key topics like college sports bets and credit card use is still uncertain.

"I am pleased to see the committee has come to an agreement on a strong proposal and I look forward to discussing it with my colleagues next week," Senate President Karen Spilka said on Friday, according to State House News Service. State senators have until 5 pm Tuesday to suggest changes to the Ways and Means Committee-approved bill that the Senate is expected to debate -and likely pass- on Thursday.

While the House passed a sports betting bill last summer and approved sports betting legalization the year before, the Senate has shown thus far less interest in tackling the issue. Meanwhile, neighboring states Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York have all approved bills and launched their respective markets.

The bill that emerged last Friday differs in many ways from the sports bill that has already cleared the House, most notably a proposed Senate ban on betting on collegiate sports. This has been a source of debate among lawmakers, which have yet to agree on a number of issues concerning the potential new market.

The proposal of banning college sports betting is in line with requests from several Massachusetts colleges and universities officials, including Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard University, which have urged lawmakers to leave it outside legislation. They argue this could lead to “unacceptable risks” to student athletes and the integrity of colleges and universities.

But not everyone is on board with this provision. According to House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who said leaving collegiate betting out could be a dealbreaker for him, revenue estimates for the state would drop from $60 million per year to between $25 million and $35 million without college sports, which he called “probably the main driver of betting in the commonwealth.”

Another issue set to drive debate is the use of credit cards to place bets, a potential point of conflict between the House and Senate. Sen. Eric Lesser, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, said his bill -the one advanced on Friday- would explicitly prohibit this. Such a provision is not featured in the House proposal.

What both the House and Senate plans do agree on is putting the new market under the watch of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, requiring that bettors be at least 21 years old, and the implemention of consumer safeguards to protect against problem gambling, reports the cited source.

The Senate’s bill calls for a framework with two types of licenses. One would permit gaming licensees to take bets at their facilities and through one mobile platform; while the second type would allow up to six other operators to take both in-person and mobile bets. Licenses would be for five years and carry a $5 million fee, which would also be paid in case of renewal.

The proposal would tax operators at a 20% rate of gross sports betting receipts for in-person gaming, and at 35% for receipts from mobile gaming, two figures at the high end of sports betting tax rates. Meanwhile, the House bill calls for in-person sportsbook revenue to be taxed at a comparatively lower 12.5%, and mobile wagering revenue to be taxed at 15%.

The Senate bill would also make changes to the Race Horse Development Fund, an account that supports the horse racing industry. Starting 2025, revenue from MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor that currently goes to the RHDF would instead be directed to an education fund unless at least 20 live racing days are held in the previous calendar year at a thoroughbred track, further informs State House News Service.

Additionally, the bill would also allow all of the Race Horse Development Fund money to be used to benefit the standardbred side of the industry -which runs at Plainridge Park Racecourse in Plainville- unless at least 20 thoroughbred races are held in the preceding calendar year.

According to a March poll, a majority of Massachusetts senators support sports betting legalization. The SHNS surveyed all legislators, receiving responses from all but 12: of those who responded, 24 (60% of the total chamber) said they would back a plan. None explicitly spoke out against legalization, although many showed concerns about reaching an agreement.

Gov. Charlie Baker has long supported sports betting legalization, and would sign a bill should it land on his desk. “There are many things that would make me happy before I leave office, if I have the chance to sign them,” he said in January. “One of them would certainly be a sports betting bill.” He stated it would open a burgeoning market for the state.

Differences between the House and Senate bills would likely have to be ironed out by a six-person conference committee before July 31, when formal lawmaking ends for the year.


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