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Massachusetts Senate struggles for sports betting consensus

Massachusetts Sen. Eric Lesser (bottom), at a State House News Service forum with Rep. Jerald Parisella (right) moderated by reporter Colin A. Young (left).
State House News Service
Massachusetts Sen. Eric Lesser (bottom), at a State House News Service forum with Rep. Jerald Parisella (right) moderated by reporter Colin A. Young (left).

Three months after he declared the Massachusetts Senate "ready" to approve legislation legalizing sports betting, Sen. Eric Lesser on Tuesday suggested that his chamber still has not reached consensus on the House-backed idea. But he said it's still a "top-tier issue."

Lesser, who co-chairs the Economic Development Committee, said his version of the bill remains "live and under active conversation and negotiation" in the Senate Ways and Means Committee but said senators continue to grapple with how to ensure the proposal emphasizes consumer protection.

"We're doing our best to balance, obviously, the fun of sports betting with some of the elements that we have to keep mindful of and be mindful of when you're talking about a gambling product," the Longmeadow Democrat said. "Like any bill, you've got a process of working with the duly elected members of the chamber on their different issues and their concerns. When there's a consensus, when we feel like we've gotten to that point, I do feel confident that something will move forward."

His comments, made at a State House News Service virtual forum alongside fellow committee co-chair Rep. Jerald Parisella, did not make clear one way or the other if Senate leaders would advance the proposal for a floor vote before lawmakers conclude their formal business for the year on Nov. 17.

The Senate, where Democrats have been holding about one formal session per week after a lengthy summer recess, plans to debate and vote on their redistricting map this week. The branch is also expected to unveil its version of a major surplus and federal aid spending bill in the three weeks remaining before the holiday recess.

"There's been a full plate, but this has absolutely been a top-tier issue," Lesser said of sports betting. "It's been something that many of us have been working on on an almost-daily basis and there's very active conversations going on. It's very much a live issue."

Asked if the Senate would act by the end of the year, Lesser replied, "I do think we're getting close, but I do think front of our minds and a big priority for me is going to be making sure those consumer protection and game integrity issues are really front and center."

One specific concern Lesser flagged is whether players should be allowed to make mobile bets on sports events using a credit card rather than a debit card or a bank account. Unlike the bill the House approved (H 3977) by a 156-3 vote in July, Lesser's version (S 269) explicitly prohibits use of a credit card to make a wager.

"The idea that somebody somewhat impulsively could rack up massive credit card bills from their couch who might have an addiction issue or otherwise have a gambling problem — that's a big concern, and it's a big concern to our caucus," Lesser said.

Another sticking point in the long-running debate has been the role of college sports. The House-approved bill would allow betting on the outcome of college sports contests but not on the performances of individual college athletes, who largely remain unpaid.

Lesser's version of the bill would not allow any kind of gambling on college athletics. Gov. Charlie Baker, a supporter of sports betting legalization, originally filed legislation that also would have excluded college sports but later said he would accept a framework that includes college contests.

Parisella said Massachusetts would become an "outlier" if it carved colleges out of its sport betting authorization, saying all 31 other states and the District of Columbia where gambling on sports is legal allow wagers on at least some collegiate contests.

He also cautioned that consumers might flock to other states — and take tax revenue with them — if they could only place bets on professional sports.

"They're going to just continue going to New Hampshire, continue going to Rhode Island, go to Connecticut or use the offshore books which allow that," Parisella, a Beverly Democrat, said. "We want to give them a product that's legal, that's regulated, that provides consumer choice."

In a WGBH News interview on Tuesday, Baker voiced a similar concern, saying his "big worry" is that many states already have sports betting policies on the books.

"There are a whole bunch of states that are pretty far around the bases, down the field," Baker said. "I know people who live in Massachusetts who drive to New Hampshire just to do it. I don't know why we wouldn't just incorporate the very basic framework that's been adopted by most of these places so that people in Massachusetts can play and generate the revenue associated with it and make sure some of it gets put to good use to help people who are dealing with gambling issues and other issues like that."

He likened the sports betting debate to discussions around other new industries such as legalized marijuana.

"It's pretty clear that this is going to be where the country goes and where the states play, and I don't know why we wouldn't just sign up like everyone else," Baker said.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano has said he believes cutting college sports from the legislation could slash state revenue estimates by $25 million to $35 million annually, declaring that its exclusion "probably would be" a dealbreaker.

But Lesser did not take as firm a stance on Tuesday, responding that he did not want to get ahead of negotiations when asked if college sports was also a line in the sand for him.

With both Lesser's bill and the House-approved version before it, the Senate Ways and Means Committee has vehicles that both include and exclude colleges from any sports wagering legislation.

"Obviously, March Madness and the bowl games are big business. A lot of people bet on that," Lesser said. "We're not denying reality, but there also needs to be an acknowledgement on the other side of that that it is different when you're dealing with 18- and 19-year-old unpaid college athletes versus pro teams."

One way to proceed, Lesser suggested, could be to "get started with pro sports (and) see how it goes."

Supporters have been pushing for Massachusetts to legalize sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 empowered states to do so. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia, including neighbors Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York, allow sports betting within their borders.

Last session, the House included an authorization in its version of an economic development bill, but the Senate declined to advance that language into the final version.

Daniel Wallach, the co-founder of the University of New Hampshire School of Law's Sports Wagering and Integrity Program, said at Tuesday's event that he had been "bullish" about the prospects of legal sports betting in Massachusetts because it does not have the same constitutional restrictions that many other states feature.

Wallach said DraftKings, the Boston-based company that is one of the leaders in the mobile daily fantasy sports wagering industry, has reported about 30% of their business in New Hampshire is "directly attributable to Massachusetts residents crossing over the border," indicating an appetite among consumers.

But so far, Wallach said, his annual prediction that this is the year the Legislature will act has gone 0-for-4.

"If you asked me in 2018 who are going to be the top 10 first states to legalize, I would've put Massachusetts in that group," he said.

Lesser referenced the slow pace on previous wagering legislation, such as creation of a state lottery and the 2011 law allowing casinos to open in the Bay State -- a measure that several of today's top Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, opposed.

Senate President Karen Spilka, who in September left sports betting off her list of fall priorities, initially opposed the casino bill in 2010, then led the effort to pass a revised version one year later.

"Every time gambling of any type has come up before the Legislature, it's been a long debate and a very thorough debate," Lesser said.

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