April 08, 2020
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Sports-betting bill a safe wager after work by Legislature

Wayne Parry | AP
Wayne Parry | AP
In this Sept. 5, 2019 photo, a gambler places sports bets at Bally's casino in Atlantic City, N.J. New Jersey gambling regulators have approved wagering on the XFL, becoming the sixth state to approve bets on the revived football league that last operated in 2001. Its season begins Feb. 8, 2020.

Nearly a year ago, we made the case for the Maine Legislature to explore the potential for new revenue available through sports betting. We also urged legislators not to rush. They didn’t.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee held multiple work sessions on the issue, considered several different proposals and eventually produced an amended version of LD 553 with bipartisan support.

After the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the door for states to allow sports betting in 2018, at least a dozen states have gone all-in on a market that, by an industry estimate, could contribute more than $22 billion to the U.S. economy each year.

Just across the border, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said his state has already seen more than $15 million in sports wagering in its first month of implementation, according to the Boston Herald.

The Maine bill, passed by both houses of the Legislature last year, would allow sports betting for people 21 and older. It would tax Maine-based locations such as casinos and off-track betting parlors at 10 percent, and would tax mobile and online betting revenue at a higher rate of 16 percent.

After Gov. Janet Mills decided to veto the legislation in January, it’s fate looked dim. And that future remains uncertain, but brighter, after the Senate surprisingly voted to override Mills’ veto on Thursday.

The House is now expected to vote on the matter in the coming days, and it too should vote to override and move forward with a responsible regulatory structure for sports betting.

“Before Maine joins the frenzy of states hungry to attract this market, I believe we need to examine the issue more clearly; better understand the evolving experiences of other states; and thoughtfully determine the best approach for Maine,” Mills wrote in her veto message. “That approach needs to balance the desire to suppress gambling activities now being conducted illegally and the need to protect youthful gamblers and those least able to absorb losses under a closely regulated scheme.”

Mills’ instinct to slow down and get this right is well-placed, but there’s been enough discussion and enough experience in other states that we don’t see the debate changing substantially moving forward. There’s potential revenue out there now, and this bill provides a reasonable framework for Maine to get in the game.

“I think a lot of people realize that the illegal market is so huge, and we’ve seen a lot of states quickly come on board to legalize sports betting, that if we don’t do it other states will get our players to go to their state and gamble,” Democratic Sen. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday.

According to an estimate from the gambling unit of the Maine State Police, the state could make up to $6.9 million in annual revenue under LD 553.

There seems to have been a lot of rhetoric — and lobbying — about what is best for Maine coming from large entities based out-of-state. These include DraftKings, a fantasy sports and sports betting provider which stands to gain access to a new market should the Maine bill become law, and Penn National Gaming, which operates the Hollywood Casino here in Bangor.

One of biggest issues of contention is whether sports betting should be tethered to brick-and mortar-facilities. There’s a good argument to be made that the businesses already invested here in the state should get priority, given their contributions to the local economy. But this bill recognizes that with its different tax structure.

The focus should be on responsibly seizing a new revenue opportunity for the state.

That revenue won’t cover any big ticket items in the state budget, but with bills to address important state issues left sitting in appropriations limbo, this potential revenue can make a difference.

State-sanctioned gambling, as it should, raises moral and societal questions. But that ship has long since sailed in Maine now that we allow casinos, and there can be little doubt that sports betting is already happening — and happening frequently.

It’s time to bring that activity out of the shadows, make it safer through regulation, and use it to help fund pressing state needs.

 


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