| State House News Service
BOSTON — Two years ago, the New England Patriots were preparing to play the Kansas City Chiefs for the chance to go to the Super Bowl and Sen. Brendan Crighton was putting the finishing touches on a legislative proposal to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts.
Fast-forward to today and the Patriots are at home on the couch, but Crighton is right where he was in mid-January 2019, again hoping this will be the year the Legislature acts to pull sports betting out from the shadows.
Crighton is preparing to refile his sports betting proposal as soon as Tuesday with a few updates, including a higher tax rate and a significant increase in licensing fees that he said will generate needed revenue for Massachusetts before a wager is even placed.
The Lynn Democrat said he believes there will be an appetite in the Senate to consider the topic this session, despite Senate leadership slow-walking the issue for much of the past two years. He hopes his bill can provide some early direction for the debate.
“Sports betting is alive and well in Massachusetts, but unfortunately we’re letting money go down the drain to the black market and states that have legalized,” Crighton said. “I think we have a real opportunity here to generate some revenue at a time we’re facing a lot of uncertainty.”
And he may be right.
Sen. Eric Lesser, who last session co-chaired the committee that studied sports betting, plans to file his own bill in the coming weeks. While he didn’t think the economic development bill was the right vehicle – the House had included a legalization measure in its version of that bill – Lesser told the News Service that he personally believes “the time has come” for Massachusetts to join its neighbors and legalize sports betting.
Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said his position was only reinforced when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this month that he supports an expansion of sports betting into mobile sites.
In 2019, when Crighton filed his sports betting bill, the activity was legal in eight states.
Now, sports betting is operational in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Three more states have laws signed and on the books, and in three additional states voters approved legal sports betting in November, and legislators must now set up a regulatory framework, according to ESPN.
Crighton was among the first legislators to offer a framework for legal sports betting in Massachusetts after the Supreme Court in 2018 opened the door for states outside of Nevada to enter the sports betting market.
His proposal was followed by others, including a bill filed By Gov. Charlie Baker.
Crighton’s newest bill would create an opportunity for the state’s two casinos in Everett and Springfield, the slots parlor in Plainville, horse-racing license holders and mobile platforms like the Boston-based DraftKings to host in-person and online sport betting.
Should thoroughbred racing return to Massachusetts, a new track would also be eligible to join the industry, which would be regulated and overseen by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Prospective license holders would have to pay a $10 million licensing fee, which is up from a high of $1 million in Crighton’s original bill, and the tax rate would be increased to 15 percent. Crighton originally proposed to tax wagers at 12.5 percent.
“We believe this will still allow for sports betting providers to be competitive against the black market,” Crighton said.
As with his original bill, Crighton is proposing to allow wagers on professional and college sports, but not on collegiate teams from universities located in Massachusetts.
Some other bills filed last session, including Gov. Baker’s, proposed to exclude college sports from any new betting framework, but Baker recently told the News Service he would accept a framework that included betting on college sports because it’s already happening in neighbor states.
“If we want people to leave their illegal marketplace and come into a regulated one we need to keep that attraction available to them,” Crighton said.
The senator’s bill also excludes any type of “integrity fee” for the professional sports leagues or venues that host games on which wagers are placed.
Senate members of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies last session abstained from a vote to advance a sports betting bill drafted by the committee, which was co-chaired with Lesser by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante. Senate leaders then ignored a sports wagering proposal tacked on by the House to a major economic development bill in July.
It’s unknown who will chair that committee this session, but Crighton believes the Senate will be in a better position to consider his bill and the issue in general now that the Legislature had better adapted to working through the COVID-190 pandemic.
“After COVID hit, everyone’s focus was on the immediate public health crisis. And that focus really continued up until a few weeks ago. I do think we would have had a debate in other times had we not been dealing with that and I’m confident this session the Senate will be taking a serious look at this and there will be an appetite for debate,” Crighton said.
House Speaker Ron Mariano blamed the Senate for the failure to legalize sports betting during the last session, saying on the last night of formal sessions, “If I could, we’d have a deal.”
Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said it was a “shame” that DraftKings founder Jason Robbins had to go to New Hampshire to find a market for sports betting, and promised to return to the issue early in the new session, which began on Jan. 6.