Massachusetts Senate Passes Sports Betting Bill

After years of discussion and pressure from both inside and outside the State House, the Massachusetts Senate voted Thursday to legalize sports wagering here, but lawmakers will have to reconcile the many differences between the Senate’s bill and the one that passed the House last summer before any bets can be placed.

Senate President Karen Spilka took heat in recent months, including from House Speaker Ronald Mariano, for seemingly slow-walking sports betting through the Senate. She said she wanted to ensure that there was consensus around any legislation she brought to the floor and it appears she secured some kind of understanding: senators unanimously agreed to let the bill pass on a voice vote, meaning that senators were not called to individually vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

“I am proud to say that this bill is a product of a thoughtful, deliberative process that takes into account the lessons learned in other states who rushed into legalization. Some may wish we had acted sooner, but I am convinced that the time we took resulted in a final product that will be a national model for responsible sports wagering,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said at the start of debate Thursday. “The Senate Ways and Means proposal maximizes the benefits for the commonwealth and minimizes harms to consumers and the general public.”

The Senate bill would generate an estimated $35 million in annual tax revenue for the state by allowing people 21 or older to bet on professional sports at the state’s casinos, slot parlor and up to six other brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, and through online or mobile platforms while physically present in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission would regulate sports betting and license the operators in Massachusetts, and the Senate bill would require numerous consumer safeguards to protect against problem gambling similar to those put in place for casinos when Massachusetts expanded gaming in 2011.

But the bill the Senate passed differs from the legislation the House approved 156-3 last summer in a handful of significant ways: its prohibition on betting on collegiate sports, its substantially higher tax rates, and its whistle-to-whistle ban on sports betting ads during live sports broadcasts. As soon as next week, the House and Senate could appoint a conference committee to hash out the differences with the goal of having a compromise bill that could be approved before the July 31 end of formal law making for the year.

“There are always differences on complicated pieces of legislation between the House and the Senate. My hope would be that they would both work to get something to our desk that we can sign by the end of the session,” Gov. Charlie Baker, who first filed his own sports betting bill in January 2019, said Thursday.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 gave states the ability to legalize sports wagering, 33 states — including neighboring Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York — and the District of Columbia have authorized sports betting, according to the American Gaming Association. Thirty states and D.C. have begun to accept bets.

“Because we waited, we learned a lot,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, the Economic Development Committee chairman who has been the Senate’s point person on sports betting. “We learned what works, we learned what doesn’t work. We learned what you need to do to make sure you’ve got a competitive market and a really good product, a high-quality product, for consumers. That’s really important.”