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Lawmakers Undecided on Legalization

Colin A. Young State House News ServiceMay 17, 2019

BOSTON — Will Massachusetts bettors be able to plunk down a legal wager on the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots when they take the field week one against the Pittsburgh Steelers?

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, who as co-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies has been studying sports betting in preparation for possibly writing a bill to expand yet another form of gaming in Massachusetts.

Along with House co-chair Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Lesser said Thursday at a State House News Forum on sports betting that he and Ferrante are still in listening mode and have not yet settled on questions like whether to allow online bets, whether to take bets on college games or what tax rate to set on wagers.

“We’re still in the fact-finding stage of all this. As I think has been well-reported, this is a complex issue,” Ferrante said. “It is an issue we want to be very diligent with and we want to make sure that if Massachusetts is to go forward with this, that we do it properly.”

While eight states, including Rhode Island, currently accepting legal bets, Massachusetts is among a handful of states moving towards allowing adults to legally wager on the outcome of professional sporting events.

Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year proposed a bill that would allow betting at licensed casinos in Massachusetts and through online platforms like DraftKings.

James Chisholm, director of global public affairs for Boston-based DraftKings, said lawmakers should feel a sense of urgency around standing up a legal and regulated betting market because people will be betting on the Patriots’ upcoming season no matter what.

“They absolutely will -- it just won’t be legal, there will be no consumer protections, there will be no responsible gaming education and there will be no revenue for the state,” Chisholm said on a second panel Thursday morning. “But people are absolutely going to be betting on it.”

At the end of the month, the Legislature will begin to dig into the question of legalizing sports betting in Massachusetts in earnest with a two-day hearing that will include invite-only testimony and a public comment period.

The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies plans to gather in Gardner Auditorium on May 28 to take testimony from stakeholders like the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and will return the next day to hear from the public in an open hearing.

Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she is planning to testify at the hearing and said the commission plans to issue an update to its 2018 white paper on sports betting in time for the hearing.

Lesser, who said he’s been consulting with former NBA player and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley while he studies sports betting, said the first question for the committee and Legislature is whether to make betting legal at all.

“There is the threshold question here of whether we want to do sports gaming in Massachusetts,” he said. “I think it’s important before we rush into a decision of what a legalization would look like that we answer that threshold question of whether we want it.”

Lesser and Ferrante each said they have not yet formed their own opinions on whether or how to legalize betting, but the chairs highlighted a number of issues the Legislature will have to think through: a tax rate, whether there is a role for the state Lottery, how to manage the risk that comes with accepting bets and how to ensure the integrity of the games and wagers.

Ferrante said there is one thought that has been keeping her awake at night as she has studied the various issues associated with sports betting.

“We had a group of representatives from a players’ association come in and very bluntly they said, ‘madam chair, people bet on horses and they bet on dogs. Do not put us in that same category.’,” she said. “And so the preservation of human dignity and the preservation of integrity, if we can get as close as we possibly can to ensuring those and resolving some of the other issues there is an appeal to the revenue that it could bring in.

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