After the Massachusetts Senate passed an economic development bill without a sports betting provision, lawmakers in support of legalization are looking to revisit the issue in the fall, according to people familiar with Beacon Hill negotiations.
Sports betting proponents seem increasingly skeptical of whether the sports betting language in the House bill will survive as lawmakers in conference committee reconcile the difference between the House and Senate proposals for final passage of the bill.
The Senate is discussing bringing the proposal back in the fall now that formal sessions have been extended past July 31, according to a gaming industry analyst, a political consultant and two Beacon Hill sources who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on legislative strategy.
“If this does come back, I think it’s a 50-50 if this gets done this calendar year,” political consultant Tony Cignoli said, citing talks with legislators. “I don’t think you’re going to see the same bill, no. I think you’re going to see a completely different make and model.”
Brendan Bussmann, a partner and director of government affairs at GMA Advisors, declined to name the stakeholders who alerted him to the possibility of a new sports betting proposal in the fall. Yet he said he believes the timeline is believable as the state seeks new sources of revenue during a recession spurred by COVID-19.
“There’s probably a handful of items that need to be worked through to come to a compromise and some of those are probably some big issues like how competitive a market needs to be, but I see no reason why based off discussions this week that this doesn’t happen this fall,” Bussmann told MassLive last week.
A legal sports betting market could bring tens of millions of tax revenue into Massachusetts’s coffers. The Baker administration wrote in $35 million in sports betting revenues as part of the $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget the governor filed in January.
Still, the prospects of a sports betting bill advancing, whether in a stand-alone bill or tacked onto another legislation, looks like a tossup. Many legislators pivot to state races to defend their seats ahead of the Sept. 1 primary, while others will likely take time off while lawmakers on conference committees negotiate on major proposals in addition to the jobs bill.
A conference committee is forming to merge the House and Senate climate bills and others are meeting on transportation, health care and — perhaps the most contentious — a landmark police reform bill.
One major hurdle sports betting proponents face is getting attention from legislative leaders whose agendas are piling up fast. They not only face pressure to send those major bills to the governor’s desk, but they’re also waiting on Congress and the White House to decide how much local aid, if any, states will receive to offset losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is not top priority. They’re very worried about a host of other things: Mass. GDP, unemployment, what happens because of the feds,” Cignoli said, referencing the lack of a full fiscal 2021 state budget. “That’s the stuff on their minds right now.”
Senate President Karen Spilka suggested as much after Friday night’s session. When asked about the prospect of passing a sports betting bill in the fall, she pointed to several other proposals that take precedence.
“We’ll have to see. Clearly, right now, our priorities are looking and working on budget, getting that information from the federal government, getting our tax returns, finding out what’s happening with COVID,” Spilka said. “As you all know, it’s beginning to uptick a little bit. We need to follow that, as well as the economy.”
Sen. Eric Lesser, chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, told senators last week that he wants to see a legalization proposal but not through the economic development bill.
The conference committee on the jobs bill, like any other in the Massachusetts Legislature, happens behind closed doors. Lawmakers are not supposed to discuss the negotiations until after a deal is reached.
Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat issued a statement Friday saying the members of the conference committee met for the first time, two days after the Senate passed its bill. The statement made no mention of sports betting.
“We understand the urgency of passing comprehensive economic recovery legislation that will provide relief to our communities and propel our commonwealth toward a brighter and more equitable future,” the statement reads. “We look forward to reaching a timely resolution in order to achieve those goals.”
Lesser was not available to comment on which specific provisions in the sports betting proposal need further vetting before heading into conference committee.
The House jobs bill that passed Wednesday got support from representatives from Springfield, home to MGM’s casino in Western Massachusetts. Reps. Bud Williams and Carlos Gonzalez, both Democrats, argue a legal market would help the state recapture money that’s going out-of-state and to illegal sports betting operators overseas.
“We were hoping that sports betting would have been considered at the Senate,” Gonzalez said. “I know the House has done so.”
A legal sports betting market could provide just the cushion MGM and other operators need to retain local jobs, Gonzalez said.
One of the biggest hurdles MGM Springfield has faced getting off the ground is luring long-time gamblers — considered creatures of habit — out of casinos in neighboring states. Williams said he fears the state could face the same challenge if it sits on sports betting legalization.
“My biggest concern is that we do nothing,” Williams said. “It’s like when we did casinos, by the time we finally did casinos they were all over the Northeast and we missed a tremendous window of opportunity.”
“It doesn’t matter which form it comes as long as we do it,” he added.
The state already faces the highest unemployment rate in the nation. MGM Resorts International’s head of Entertainment & Sports sent a letter to employees last week warning them the cancellation of their August shows means most of the division will be out of work.
Chris Kelley, MGM Springfield’s president and chief operating officer, told MassLive a legal sports betting market would bring crucial revenue to the state, creating jobs and undermining the black market.
“Few sectors of the economy have been harder hit by the pandemic than hospitality, travel and leisure,” Kelley said. “With legalized sports betting already taking place across our borders in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, this is a unique opportunity to help support the local economy and bring consumers back to Massachusetts.”
The initial jobs bill that emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee required online sportsbooks applying for a sports betting license to have at least a year of fantasy league experience, which would have mostly limited the pool to Boston-based DraftKings and New York-based FanDuel. The House ultimately nixed the requirement in the $495 million bill that passed, opening up eligibility for a broader pool of contenders.
Restaurant and bar owners, who for years have pushed for inclusion in a legal market, were not included in the House bill.
“We’re hoping House language doesn’t hold in conference so that we can have a more robust discussion about small local businesses being part of this industry,” said Ryan McCollum, spokesman for Fair Play Massachusetts.
Bussmann, the gaming analyst, doesn’t care for a sports betting proposal that expands eligibility to keno operators. He took issue with other elements of the House bill, such as the 1% facility fee and efforts to notify the state of sports data contracts.
“Massachusetts has said from the beginning that they wanted to have a very thorough and thoughtful process toward its approach on sports betting,” he said, “which will be a very strong sports betting market once it becomes legal.”
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